Primary & Secondary Sources – OHIO University Libraries

One of the important concepts, especially in research in the arts and humanities, is the idea of Primary Sources.

For a brief overview of the use of primary sources, see Using Primary Sources on the Web. This page contains suggestions of where to find primary sources and how to evaluate what you have found.

An Example

The timeline below is a simplified illustration of the flow from primary to secondary and tertiary resources. For an explanation, see the comments below the illustration.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
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  1. A video of the speech itself is about as “primary” as can be. It provides more information, in the forms of sight and sound, than a transcript of the speech would. That being said, a printed transcript is essential for doing a careful analysis of the speech.
  2. It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. The New York Times published several articles on the speech the day after it was delivered.
  3. The Life magazine article goes into much less detail about the speech, quoting only brief passages from it, and is less immediate in its impact.
  4. Over the decades since Churchill delivered the speech, there have been countless articles, books, and other publications about it. The 1979 article from Historical Journal is an example of a scholarly article that examined both the speech itself as well as previous scholarly articles on Churchill, the speech, and the Cold War.
  5. Coming along still later is the 1999 book-length collection of essays by many different scholars. Some of them doubtless relied more on primary source materials than others.
  6. Finally, most encyclopedia articles–along with many textbooks, popular magazine articles, and the like–are based entirely, or almost entirely, on secondary sources. Since they have little or no direct contact with primary sources, they are known as tertiary (third-level) sources.

Obviously, this is a simplified example: there are often gray, fuzzy areas of shading between the various kinds of sources. The principle remains, however: the closer a source is to the original events, the more it can be considered a Primary Source.