Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence. Examples include interview transcripts, statistical data, and works of art. Primary research gives you direct access to the subject of your research.
Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books. Thus, secondary research describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.
Table of contentsWhat is a primary source?What is a secondary source?Primary and secondary source examplesHow to tell if a source is primary or secondaryPrimary vs secondary sources: which is better?Frequently asked questions about primary and secondary sources
If you are researching the past, you cannot directly access it yourself, so you need primary sources that were produced at the time by participants or witnesses (e.g. letters, photographs, newspapers).
If you are researching something current, your primary sources can either be qualitative or quantitative data that you collect yourself (e.g. through interviews, surveys, experiments) or sources produced by people directly involved in the topic (e.g. official documents or media texts).
A secondary source can become a primary source depending on your research question. If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is the main focus of your research, it becomes a primary source.
If you are researching the causes of World War II, a recent documentary about the war is a secondary source. But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, the documentary is a primary source.
Most research uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other to help you build a convincing argument. Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but secondary sources show how your work relates to existing research. Tertiary sources are often used in the first, exploratory stage of research.
Secondary sources are good for gaining a full overview of your topic and understanding how other researchers have approached it. They often synthesize a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:
When you conduct a literature review or meta analysis, you can consult secondary sources to gain a thorough overview of your topic. If you want to mention a paper or study that you find cited in a secondary source, seek out the original source and cite it directly.
Some types of source are nearly always primary: works of art and literature, raw statistical data, official documents and records, and personal communications (e.g. letters, interviews). If you use one of these in your research, it is probably a primary source.
In historical studies, old articles are used as primary sources that give direct evidence about the time period. In social and communication studies, articles are used as primary sources to analyze language and social relations (for example, by conducting content analysis or discourse analysis).
An essay is a piece of sustained writing in response to a question, topic or issue. Essays are commonly used for assessing and evaluating student progress in history. History essays test a range of skills including historical understanding, interpretation and analysis, planning, research and writing.
Writing a good history essay should be rigorous and challenging, even for stronger students. As with other skills, essay writing develops and improves over time. Each essay you complete helps you become more competent and confident in exercising these skills.
Prepare for research by brainstorming and jotting down your thoughts and ideas. What are your initial responses or thoughts about the question? What topics, events, people or issues are connected with the question? Do any additional questions or issues flow from the question? What topics or events do you need to learn more about? What historians or sources might be useful?
Most will start by reading an overview of the topic or issue, usually in some reliable secondary sources. This will refresh or build your existing understanding of the topic and provide a basis for further questions or investigation.
Referencing not only acknowledges the work of others, but it also gives authority to your writing and provides the teacher or assessor with an insight into your research. More information on referencing a piece of history writing can be found here.
Propaganda was one of the most important tools the Nazis used to shape the beliefs and attitudes of the German public. Through posters, film, radio, museum exhibits, and other media, they bombarded the German public with messages designed to build support for and gain acceptance of their vision for the future of Germany. The gallery of images below exhibits several examples of Nazi propaganda, and the introduction that follows explores the history of propaganda and how the Nazis sought to use it to further their goals.
The Federalist, commonly referred to as the Federalist Papers, is a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison between October 1787 and May 1788. The essays were published anonymously, under the pen name "Publius," in various New York state newspapers of the time.
The Federalist Papers were written and published to urge New Yorkers to ratify the proposed United States Constitution, which was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. In lobbying for adoption of the Constitution over the existing Articles of Confederation, the essays explain particular provisions of the Constitution in detail. For this reason, and because Hamilton and Madison were each members of the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers are often used today to help interpret the intentions of those drafting the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers were published primarily in two New York state newspapers: The New York Packet and The Independent Journal. They were reprinted in other newspapers in New York state and in several cities in other states. A bound edition, with revisions and corrections by Hamilton, was published in 1788 by printers J. and A. McLean. An edition published by printer Jacob Gideon in 1818, with revisions and corrections by Madison, was the first to identify each essay by its author's name. Because of its publishing history, the assignment of authorship, numbering, and exact wording may vary with different editions of The Federalist.
One printed edition of the text is The Federalist, edited by Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, 1961). Cooke's introduction provides background information on the printing history of The Federalist; the information provided above comes in part from his work.
Note: The MLA Handbook: 8th Edition has changed from the structures of previous editions and now offers a new approach to citing various sources. The updated book turns its direction toward a more simplified and universal structure to encompass a variety of sources you may encounter. It encourages the logic that as long as your citation includes the core elements, it still aligns with proper MLA principles and provides the following generalized structure: MLA CITATION FORMAT (MLA Handbook, 8th ed., p. 20)
AuthorTitle of SourceTitle of Container (larger work, such as an anthology)Other ContributorsVersionNumberPublisherPublication DateLocationDate of access (recommended for online resources)
Articles and essays include examples that illustrate collection themes. Many collections include specific items, such as timelines, family trees or scholarly essays, which are not primary source documents. Such content has been created to enhance understanding of the collection. If no author is named, in most cases The Library of Congress may be cited as the author.
The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five essays urging the citizens of New York to ratify the new United States Constitution. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the essays originally appeared anonymously in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the pen name "Publius." The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution.
To support libraries, researchers, and educators, we regularly commission academics to write contextual essays that explore topics using our digital primary source archives. These essays cover a broad range of topics, including
Any views and opinions expressed in these essays are those of the author in question, and any views or opinions from the original source material are those of the publication in question. Gale, a Cengage Company, provides facsimile reproductions of original sources and do not endorse or dispute the content contained in them. Author affiliation and information within them are correct as of the original publication date.
is a CNRS research professor of history at the Centre for the Sociology of Organisations (Sciences Po), Paris. She co-authored Quantitative Methods in the Humanities: An Introduction (2019) with Claire Zalc.
is a CNRS research professor and an EHESS professor of history in Paris. She co-authored Quantitative Methods in the Humanities: An Introduction (2019) with Claire Lemercier. Her latest book is Denaturalized: How Thousands Lost Their Citizenship and Lives in Vichy France (2020).
Some pioneering efforts of this type are still cited today: the University of Michigan study of the Florentine census of 1427 is a landmark in the history of the family. Many series, or their analyses, were never completed, however, and data were often lost in successive generations of computer formats. More generally, questions arose as to the returns on such investments. 2b1af7f3a8