Skip to main content
Syracuse University Libraries

Finding Primary Sources

Introduction

What are Primary Sources? How do they differ from Secondary Sources? 

Primary Sources

The 2018 Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy, developed by a joint task force of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) define primary sources as follows:  “Primary sources are materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work. Primary sources can be printed materials (such as books and ephemera), manuscript/archival materials (such as diaries or ledgers), audio/visual materials (such as recordings or films), artifacts (such as clothes or personal belongings), or born-digital materials (such as emails or digital photographs). Primary sources can be found in analog, digitized, and born-digital forms.” 

Secondary Sources

The same Guidelines define a secondary source as “a work synthesizing and/or commenting on primary and/or other secondary sources. Secondary sources, which are often works of scholarship, are differentiated from primary sources by the element of critical synthesis, analysis, or commentary.”

Secondary sources, however, are often based on primary sources and make frequent reference to the primary material they are synthesizing. 

Example of a Primary-Secondary-Source Relationship

The Book Practical Dreamer: Gerrit Smith and the Crusade for Social Reform by Norman K. Dann, published in 2009 (a secondary source), is largely based on information from material contained in the Gerrit Smith Papers (an archival manuscript collection = a primary source) housed at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center. A part of this primary source, broadsides and pamphlets of the collection, has also been digitized and are accessible online. 

Secondary Sources as Primary Sources?

We need to keep in mind, however, that the distinction between primary and secondary sources isn’t always as clean cut as one would wish or we should better say: the categorization of a source as primary or secondary can change depending on the researcher’s focus. A book on geology, for example, is in most cases considered a secondary source as it usually synthesizes previous research, etc. In a study on the history of science, on the other hand, the same book can become a primary source informing us about the state of the discipline at the time of its publication and about the mindsets and worldviews of the people involved.