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Types of Sources: Identifying Primary Sources

A guide that provides information on types of sources and how to find them.

Primary Sources Vary by Discipline

Chart shows 3 main categories, arts and humanities, social and behavioral sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics, and examples of primary sources for each category. Category one, Arts and humanities examples of primary sources are: Autobiographies, diaries, drawings, scripts, and sculptures. Category two, Social and behavioral sciences example primary sources are court cases, interviews, original research, photographs, and speeches. Category three, Natural sciences and mathematics primary sources examples are clinical trials, lab notebooks, original research, patents and technical reports.

*Noncomprehensive

Created by Nicholas Gordon, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Wichita State University Libraries

Primary Source Materials

A primary source is the original source of information of a topic. The information is usually created at the time of an event. What defines a primary resource varies slightly with each discipline. Typically, artifacts, diaries and manuscripts, autobiographies, photographs, audio files of interviews before editing, blogs and vlogs published and produced by the creator are considered to be primary information sources.

Primary Sources are NOT usually unbiased. In fact almost all information contains bias, if only because information may be missing. A researcher must thoroughly conduct an investigation into his/her topic to understand biases inherent in each information source. Many primary sources are found in the Taft College Library A-Z Database List.

What defines a primary source? This varies slightly with each discipline. Here are some examples:

  • Archaeology/Anthropology: An artifact or object that provides evidence of a society, such as clothing, farming tools, household items, and buildings
  • Arts and Literature: The original artistic or literary work that forms the basis for a criticism or review, such as feature films, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, novels, plays, and poems
  • Biology: Research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles)
  • Engineering: Design notes, patents, conference proceedings, technical reports, and field surveys
  • History: Government documents (e.g., treaty, birth certificate), photographs, store account books, artifacts (such as those listed for archeology/anthropology), maps, legal and financial documents, and census records

A primary source may provide legal documentation, evidence of popular culture in a region and/or time period or illustrate experiences of an individual. Be sure to ask your librarian or an instructor for more suggestions for primary sources.

The word "periodical" is a generic word for publications published periodically, such as journals, magazines and newspapers. Periodicals can be considered to be primary sources when an article contains information about original research or theory. The author's own words about the work s/he created would be a primary source.

Scholarly journal articles most often publish this type of information. However, newspapers include articles by professional writers embedded in military units and writers who have first-hand experiences.

Science and Children journal cover

Scholarly Journals

This type of periodical usually has a narrow focus. For example Science & Children has articles that only pertain to preK-5 science teachers. It is a peer-reviewed journal published nine times a year and available to members of the National Science Teachers Association. 

Articles in scholarly journals are written by scholars or researchers in this field, so the authors of articles in Science & Children are educational practitioners and other education professionals. Most academic or scholarly journals are peer-reviewed or juried, which means that peers of the authors (scholars or professionals in that field) review articles and offer criticisms before they are published. 

Scholarly journal articles are usually used as primary sources when the article contains original research or theory or provides a unique approach to a topic. 

 

generic stack of newspapers

News Sources

Newspapers, news blogs/vlogs, news magazines and similar sources are usually written by professional journalists. These authors usually have degrees in English, communication or journalism, and may also have some education in the field they are writing in. For example, Barbara Walters has an English degree, and her first job was writing press releases for a NBC network affiliate in New York City. Other reporters may have degrees in agriculture or political science and put that degree to work by specializing in news related to that field.

News articles are typically not as technical as scholarly articles, and are a good choice when the researcher wants information about events as the event was currently perceived at publication. News sources are also useful for local information, opinions, or commentary about a topic. Newspapers may be found from the late 1800's to current issues. As with other publications, news sources are used as primary sources of information when the researcher is looking for authoritative opinion and personal experience. 

 

National Geographic: Under London issue

Magazines

Magazines and trade journals are not typically considered to be primary sources, but ANYTHING can be a primary source if it contains original information. If you need to know what date National Geographic published "Under London," you should locate an issue and look at the date. 

Most magazines appropriate for research are subject-specific. These are usually trade magazines, which means they are published for professionals in the field. Memberships to the publishing organization may be required. For example, a subscription to National Geographic Magazine requires the subscriber to belong to the National Geographic Society.

Many professional organizations include publications with the subscription price, and professionals typically receive these publications even if they belong to an organization for networking, career assistance, political/professional advocacy or for other benefits.

 

Robin Roberts of Good Morning America on ABCBlogs and Social Media

These sources are electronic versions of personal opinions and experiences. Writings by specialists, professional journalists, and others considered to be authorities in his/her field would be credible sources, depending on the his/her specialty and the topic of the writing. If the researcher needs to know opinions and see dialog, blogs and social media can be primary sources. 

Robin Roberts of Good Morning America on ABC

 

Booksbook cover of Silent Spring by Carson

Similar to periodicals, a book would be a primary source if it contains the author's own opinion or thoughts about theory, documents original research, or is autobiographical. Fiction works are primary sources for works of criticism and reviews. 

Books usually offer a broad view of a topic. Books are great sources when the researcher needs an overview of a topic and therefore are sometimes useful for background information. Historical topics are usually covered better in books than in articles. The researcher may not need the whole book for research. Look at the table of contents or chapter list for the most relevant chapters. Scan through the index in the back of the book for your main topic and check out the pages that are listed for that topic (as well as the rest of that sub-chapter).

wikipedia logoEncyclopedias

Encyclopedias are not typically considered to be primary sources, but ANYTHING can be a primary source if it contains original information. Encyclopedias are a compendium of informational articles usually written by subject-matter experts. Entries range from short paragraphs to multiple pages. Encyclopedias may be multi-disciplinary, such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, or subject-specific, such as the Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America.

Do you want to know how Wikipedia articles are created and modified? The primary source would be the Wikipedia article that addresses this topic.

 

APA 6th edition book coverHandbooks and Standards

These book sources often contain information required for maintaining technical norms and integrity. Engineering, grammar, and many other fields use handbooks and standards to establish required benchmarks. Handbooks and standards are considered to be primary sources when used for this type of information. Textbooks often gather information from these sources.

 

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs logoLegal Materials

Legal materials, including statutes, bills, congressional reports, hearings, court records, case notes, brochures and other documents produced by federal, state and local governments are original sources of information. Some documents, such as court proceedings, also include transcripts of conversations. 

ManuscriptsJR Mead business card c. 1880s

Handwritten or typed notes, journals and diaries, ledgers and other handwritten records of economic transactions all record personal, historical experiences. Although this medium may be digitized as PDF or other image files, the original must be on paper to be defined as a manuscript.

Design for a chair patent number US Des. 126710Patents

There are many types of patents.  Like standards, patents provide information about the specifications of a design, a process, or other product or idea. Although most patents contain images, a textual description accompanies each patent. 

 

pottery- brown and black on cream fine line seed jarArtifacts

Man-made objects, typically of cultural or historical interest are called artifacts. Artifacts are most often used as primary sources for cultural anthropology or historical research, but tools, technology and other objects may be useful information sources in other fields as well. Museums, libraries and personal collections are all good sources for artifacts.

Pueblo Indian pottery, miniature seed jar, Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Wichita State University

1878AD map of KansasMaps

A diagrammatic representation of an area of land, sea or sky usually illustrates spatial arrangement or distribution of something, such as population. These primary sources may still include bias, as with statistics and other sources. think about what information may have been excluded. Although Native American inhabitation and United States forts are included on this map, other important pieces of information relevant to this era might be omitted. See the "Finding Sources" page in this guide for more information.

Cram's Rail Road and Township Map of Kansas, 1878 AD

Motion Pictures

Similar to fictional books, criticisms and reviews of films, television shows and other motion pictures require reference to the original item being reviewed. Documentaries may also be primary sources if interviews, original footage and other first-hand experiences are included.

The Taft College Library has several streaming media databases. Learn how to find these databases on the A-Z Databases Page on the "Finding Sources" page in this guide. Dartmouth College Library has a comprehensive guide on historical film research.

 

 

Elvis Presley singing with guitarMusical Recordings

Criticisms and reviews of music, musicals, and other performances require reference to the original item being reviewed. The Taft College Library has a collection of music available for checkout. Learn how to find more information on music, on the A-Z Databases Page on the "Finding Sources" page in this guide.

 

 

 

Elvis on the CBS television program Stage Show, January 16, 1956

Photographs

Photographs document events or relationships, history of an organization or location, and provide evidence of an historical event. See the "Finding Sources" page in this guide for more information.

 

 

 

Taft College naming of the library December 14, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr with right arm upraisedSpeeches and Interviews

As with other public performances, a researcher/writer should reference the original material. Speeches and interviews may be found in audio formats or transcribed. Search the library online catalog for a particular speech title or speaker. Compilations of speeches may be found with the subject search "speeches" or "sermons."

 

 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964; By Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer

graph from 1948-2010 of the U. S. Labor Force participation rate.Statistics and Research Data

Numerical information may be represented statistically as a summary (such as the total civilian labor force shown in this chart) or specific data sets may be available, which is more detailed information and less open to interpretation. Data may have been collected by a variety of methods, including experiments, observational studies, sampling and with other methods and tools. The Taft College Library has several statistical databases

 

 

US Labor Force Participation Rate, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Date: 11/05/10

Types of Primary Research

Most Students have performed research, which is gathering information from a variety of sources and compiling the data into one document or presentation. Each report begins with an introduction to the topic, and the body of the report builds a position or develops an explanation on a topic, often with real world applications, and the conclusion reveals the outcome of the study. A list of references is provided at the end of the document. However, this merely lays the foundation for more in-depth primary research performed at the graduate and professional level. Primary research involves a study and analysis of resulting data. There are many different types of primary research studies, which are listed below:

 

 

Each of these types of studies can be done with a different focus and time frame. Primary research in the sciences and humanities is often performed in each of these levels of research study, and published in the professional literature of the discipline. Research for college-level courses often requires primary research studies for the main sources used. Written for professional peers, these sources are often challenging for students to read and comprehend. Researchers need to recognize the additional time required to understand the in-depth material presented, and develop the skills and stamina to deal with the challenge. Most undergraduate college-level research is secondary research, building on the concepts and information developed through primary research. Most researchers are familiar with tertiary research, which use secondary, tertiary and other sources of common knowledge to develop an idea.

Click here for a tutorial from the University of Texas San Antonio on the Elements of a Research Article.