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Research Essentials

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What is a primary source?

That depends on your topic, and how you are studying it. In general:

  • Primary source – direct, uninterpreted evidence about or records of the subject of your research project. A primary source is as close as you can get to the event, person, phenomenon, or other subject of your research.
  • Secondary source – books, articles, and other writings by scholars and researchers build on primary sources by interpreting and assessing primary information.

For example, if you are writing about a novel, the novel is a primary source, and an article critiquing the novel is a secondary source to help you construct your own interpretation of the novel. If you are writing about the critical reception of a novel, that article critiquing the novel is a primary source.

A very brief and far from comprehensive list of examples of primary sources:

  • Diaries, letters, memoirs, manuscripts
  • Interviews, speeches
  • Photographs, maps, posters
  • Publications representing a time, place, or event (newspapers, magazines, books, etc.)
  • Physical artifacts (tools, clothing, furniture, coins, etc. ad infinitum)
  • Works or art (physical or performance) or literature
  • Government documents (census data, hearings, court reports, laws, etc.)
  • Lab notes, data, etc., compiled during experiments, fieldwork, etc.
  • Published results of a researcher’s own experiments, clinical trials, etc.
  • Conference proceedings where results of original experiments, etc., were presented

Be creative in thinking of possible primary sources, to find or to create yourself, for your research.


Some sources of primary sources:

> Primary source databases - Everything in the A-Z Databases list tagged as collections of primary sources of various types.

> Wesleyan's Special Collections and Archives are our local experts on using archival resources.

> Books that compile and reprint primary sources - Some books are, or at least contain, a collection of reproductions of primary source materials on a topic. These are usually tagged with a subject heading you can use to find them

Here are some common subject headings used in library catalogs for books that reproduce primary source materials:

  • Case studies
  • Correspondence
  • Description and travel
  • Diaries
  • Facsimiles
  • Interviews
  • Manuscripts
  • Personal narratives
  • Pictorial works
  • Speeches
  • Sources

On the library home page, use OneSearch to search for Wesleyan Books or CTW Books, and include one of the above subject tags in your search. If you use OneSearch's "Advanced Search" mode, you can specify to find those terms in a subject field

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