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Special Collections Research Center

An introduction to primary research documents and archives held in the Special Collections Research Center of George Mason University Libraries

Primary Source vs. Secondary Source

Primary sources are documents (or other kinds of materials) that were created in the past that can be used by researchers in the present to gain insight into a specific time period. Primary sources provide ideas and evidence about events in the past. Scholars use the evidence found in primary sources to draw conclusions and construct narratives about the past.

Types of primary sources: Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, photographs, letters, oral history interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records, meeting minutes, and can include objects such as pottery, furniture, clothing, and buildings.

Primary source documents exist as such only after the passing of time; they were not necessarily created to support historical analyses. They are typically the day-to-day documents that support the functioning of a business/organization or an individual. Over time, these documents remain and can lend insight into specific time periods, organizations' and individuals' histories. That said, it is important to note that this is their secondary, not original function.

Secondary sources are published works that present arguments and conclusions about events in the past based on primary source (or archival) research. Types of secondary sources include textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedias.

Document Analysis

The following is a list of questions to help guide your primary source research:

  • Who created this document? Who took this photo? Who wrote and received this letter?   
  • What do you know about this organization?
  • What do you know about the historical context of the source?
  • How does the source creator fit into this historical context? What was his or her role?
  • Why was this source created?
  • What kinds of factual information does it provide?
  • What is conveyed, but not necessarily intentionally?
  • What is not conveyed in this source? What isn't being said?
  • What is surprising, unique, puzzling, and interesting in this source?
  • How does the creator of this source convey information?
  • How is the world today different than when this document was created?
  • How might this source have been received in its time?
  • How does this source compare to accounts in secondary sources?
  • What do you believe and what doesn't seem credible about this source?
  • What do you still not know and where might you find it?

How to Research with Primary Sources

  • Research Using Primary SourcesAn introduction to using primary sources in research - defines a primary source, secondary source, archives, archivist, finding aid, and special collections.
  • Using Archives: A Guide to Effective ResearchThis website sponsored by the Society of American Archivists addresses the functions and procedures of archives and is designed both for first-time archives users and scholars who have already conducted research in archives.
  • Using Primary SourcesA short essay from the DoHistory site that explains how one might begin research in an Archive.
  • Using Primary Sources on the WebA comprehensive guide to primary sources on the Web created by the American Library Association.