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Evaluating Sources Help Guide

You've found a source - but how do you know if it's the right source for your needs? This guide will discuss approaches to evaluating sources for your research.

Primary Sources Defined

Primary sources are original creations or first-hand accounts of an event. Primary sources provide direct evidence about an event, object, or person. These sources allow researchers to get as close to an event as possible. Primary sources are also known as “original sources.”

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Original Documents:
    • Letters, diaries, contracts, interviews, emails, newspaper articles that give a first-hand account of an event, etc.
  • Creative Works:
    • Movies, songs, novels, paintings, poems, etc.
  • Relics or Artifacts:
    • Buildings, objects, such as pottery or tools created by earlier civilizations, etc.
  • Data:
    • Census numbers, data collected during a research project, statistics, historical data, etc.

Secondary Sources Defined

Secondary sources interpret or analyze primary sources or information. They are usually in written form, but other formats, like documentaries, are also considered secondary sources. Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, or comment on primary sources. These sources are meant to analyze, evaluate, comment on, or process primary sources or events.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Journal or Research Articles
  • Textbooks
  • Magazine Articles
  • Nonfiction Books
  • Commentaries and Criticisms
  • Reviews

Primary vs. Secondary Example

This is a famous photograph by Dorothea Lange of Florence Thompson, an itinerant farm worker and mother. This photo was taken during the Great Depression; Dorothea Lange was one of many photographers hired by the Federal Government to document the effect of the Depression on the people of the United States. 

Because this photo is an original creation it is a primary source:

(To see more photographs of the Great Depression, visit the FSA/OWI collection.)

This is a book written about the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Since it compiles and comments on original images, this is a secondary source:

Define What You Need

When working with or looking for primary sources, it’s important to know what you need. 

First, consider whether you are looking for a personal story, data, art, business transactions, or first-hand accounts of events. Then, decide what type of material you need:

  • letters?
  • diaries?
  • newspaper articles?
  • Photographs?

You can use the name of the material as a part of your keywords.

For example, if you need to use a person's diary who lived in Massachusetts during the Colonial period, you can create an efficient search strategy in UDC Search or Google: (diary OR diaries) Massachusetts

This search may not lead you directly to a full-text diary, but it will bring up websites of historical societies or museums that have digitized, full-text primary source materials available through their website.

Online Primary Sources

Here are some places on the web where you can find primary resources.

Newspaper Resources

Historical and current newspapers are fantastic sources for news, coverage of stories as they happened, historical advertisements, and much more. Here is a list of places where you can access current and historical newspapers.