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COVID-19 Update: Although the Gould Library building remains closed, the library staff continue our commitment to support the teaching and research needs of the Carleton community. Information on remote access to library resources and services will be updated regularly on the Remote Resources and Guidance for Library Users page and this FAQ. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need additional assistance.

Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

 

A primary source is an original work produced by a person who had a direct connection with it. These works can include letters, fiction/poetry, datasets, news media about phenomena, artwork, patents, artifacts, and some peer-reviewed journal articles that report original research. The important distinguishing element of a primary source from secondary sources is that the author was directly involved with their subject. 

Secondary sources are publications such as a monograph (academic book on a single subject) or peer-reviewed journal articles in which scholars present their analysis, insights, and claims. This can include works such as scholarly criticism, some peer-reviewed journal articles, or reviews of a text or scientific study. On occasion, things that were originally published as secondary sources can be analyzed by future scholars as primary artifacts about what scholarship was like at the time of the original publication.


Primary sources are a key component for almost every kind of research project. It is important to note that while it may be tempting to type "[discipline or project topic] primary sources," or something similar into Catalyst, Google Scholar, a database, or another search tool; this kind of search strategy will not yield the results for which you are looking. Instead, each academic discipline has its own kinds of primary sources that it utilizes (and they may vary widely by discipline), and so please visit the "Primary Sources by Subject" page to learn what primary sources look like in your discipline, and where to find them.

General Resources about Primary Sources