How to find primary sources
What are primary sources?
A primary source is any original work that is unmediated by external analysis, evaluation, or interpretation. A secondary source is typically an external study of primary sources, usually written retrospectively. A tertiary source typically amalgamates the content found in primary and secondary sources and is less critical or argumentative than secondary sources.
How do you know if something is a primary source? A primary source is often…
- A first-hand account or an original work
- Original in content, rather than an analysis or interpretation of another subject
- Contemporary with the subject, topic or event you are exploring
Types of primary sources include…
- Audio recordings
- Government documents
- Laboratory notes
- Survey research
- And more!
Specific examples of primary sources include…
- Audio recordings: field recordings of birdsongs
- Artifact: a piece of Ottoman pottery
- Book: Plato’s Republic
- Government document: Indian Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. I-5)
- Music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (or "the Choral")
- Paintings: Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night
- Patent: Mobile Robot System, CA Patent No. 2822980, 2013
- And more!
Note: Depending on the context, items that are traditionally not considered primary sources may be treated as such. For example, a journal article (traditionally a secondary source) about the War of 1812 could be a primary source if one is researching how that war is understood in existing scholarship. Additionally, a textbook (traditionally seen as a tertiary source) on Aboriginal culture could be a primary source if examining representations of Aboriginal culture in high school curricula.