What are Primary Sources?
This video will provide a concrete definition of what primary sources are, how they differ from secondary sources, and examples of what primary sources could be.
What are primary sources? And how are they different from secondary sources?
In the humanities, primary sources are documents, artifacts, or other materials created by people directly connected to your topic.
A primary source might be connected in this way to an event (like the Riel Rebellion), a person (like Malcolm X), an idea (like human rights), or a broader phenomenon (like science in early Islam).
Think of primary sources as the raw materials related to the topic you are analyzing.
Secondary sources are those that help you interpret, analyze, or report on these primary materials.
Let's say you are studying attitudes towards immigrants in Britain during the 1900s. You might consult newspaper editorials, immigrant diaries, and government legislation from that time period as primary sources. These could serve as materials that provide firsthand evidence of the attitudes you are studying.
In addition, you might consult secondary sources like scholarly books and journal articles from a variety of time periods to help you interpret and analyze the topic.
However, keep in mind that primary sources exist in all kinds of formats:
speeches, laws, statistics, posters, audio recordings, maps, random bits of paper, poetry, shoes, shoes with poetry written on them, and even scholarly materials like books and journal articles.
That's right: a journal article could be a primary source if one is studying the ways in which scholars at a particular time spoke about a specific topic.
The journal article “Ethnic Segregation in Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s” by the British scholar Robert Woods could be used as a secondary source if you are studying the living conditions faced by non-white immigrants in the UK in that time period.
In this case, the article is serving as a secondary source because it is providing material to help you interpret or analyze your topic.
The same journal article could be used as a primary source if you are studying the language that British scholars used to talk about non-white immigrants. The article is serving here as a primary source because it represents an example of the phenomenon you are studying—that is, the language used by British scholars.
In short, the status of a source as primary or secondary depends on how you intend to use that source.
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