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How to Do Library Research

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary Sources in the Arts 19th century fashion plate from Peterson's Magazine

Both primary and secondary sources are useful and can help you learn about the past.

Primary sources are items that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. These documents were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred and include personal letters, diaries, patents, or other documents such as the magazine fashion plate on the right. Primary sources can also include photographs, jewelry, works of art, architecture, furniture, household objects, clothing, and other artifacts, as well as materials documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.

Secondary sources are those which are written ABOUT events in the past. They usually interpret those events through the lens of the time period in which they are written. New discoveries are made and attitudes change over time causing understandings of past events to change. Writers produce secondary sources like scholarly books, textbooks, articles, encyclopedias, and anthologies because they help explain new or different positions and ideas about the primary sources.

It’s all about perspective.

Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use. An art history textbook would be considered a secondary source since it describes and interprets the history of art but makes no original contribution to it. On the other hand, if the topic is art education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.

How do you find primary sources?

Of course, if you can see an artwork or piece of clothing in person, great! If you can’t, primary source materials of all kinds are available in reproduction. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in the original format, in digital format, or published on paper. You can find them in books, journals, and magazines, as well as in online databases such as ARTstor, Europeana, Internet Archive, and museum and university online collections.  

If are having trouble finding sources, ask a librarian for help, or look at one of our LibGuides:

Adapted from

General Resources