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UTEP, Bhutan and Tibet

Primary vs. Secondary Resources - Definitions

What are they, when do I use them?

Primary sources are produced by participants or direct observers of an event or time period. These sources may be recorded during the event or later on, by a participant reflecting upon the event.

Why would I use them?

Primary sources offer a first-hand or eyewitness account of a situation that is unfiltered by interpretation.

What are some examples?

Government documents
Legal documents
Public opinion polls
Personal materials, including letters, diaries, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies and oral histories
Artifacts, including photos, paintings, drawings, etc.

How should I use them in my research?

To analyze primary sources, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the creator and what was their relationship to the event or issue?
  • Why did the creator produce this source?
  • Was the source for personal use? For a large audience?
  • Was the source intended to be public (newspaper) or private (correspondence)?
  • How neutral was the creator? What biases or interests might have influenced how the source was created?
  • Can the source be substantiated by other primary sources? Can you confirm what the creator is saying?

Secondary sources are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. They are analyses of primary sources written by scholars and experts in a field after the time period or event has occurred.

Why would I use them?

Secondary sources have the benefit of hindsight. The author is able to contextualize the primary source in a way that takes into account other viewpoints and events that happened at the same time or afterwards.

Where are some examples?

  • Biographies
  • Reviews and criticism
  • Histories, such as in books or documentaries

How should I use them in my research?

Secondary sources are useful when you need an expert’s or scholar’s interpretation of a topic. This individual has spent her career researching primary documents and interpreting, analyzing and contextualizing them.

How to search for primary sources

  • Be flexible: Try alternate terms to test various searches and remember to zoom out when necessary to explore a topic more broadly.
  • Be specific: Search for names whenever possible. Limit to dates if possible.
  • Avoid search term 'strings': Primary sources are best searched with single terms and phrases, so stay simple.
  • You may need to do research before you do research: Are your search terms appropriate for the time wherein you are searching?
  • Browse: It is more time consuming, but exploring the context within which your artifact was situated helps you understand it better.
  • Have the right attitude: Primary source research is not about argument - it's not about finding a known item. Primary source research is inquiry-based - let your curiosity lead you and allow the artifacts you find to speak to you and tell their story. 

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