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Primary Source

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Primary Source

When writing a synthesis essay, you will need both primary and secondary sources. The differences between primary and secondary sources are where they come from and how you use them. Primary sources come from firsthand accounts of your essay's topic. They serve the purpose of providing you with original research sources and authoritative accounts of your topic. There are multiple types of primary sources, and which ones you use depends on the topic and purpose of your essay.

Primary Source Definition

A primary source is anything that gives you direct evidence about the people, events, or phenomena that you are researching.

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it.

First-hand accounts can take several forms. For now, just think of primary sources as any sources that give you this firsthand account of your topic.

Primary source. A keychain sits on a map. StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - A primary source links you to the source.

Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

There are two key differences between primary sources and secondary sources: a) where they come from and b) how you use them. You will likely use both primary and secondary sources in a synthesis essay. They complement each other.

Secondary sources are sources that provide second-hand explanations or analyses of primary sources.

Secondary sources come from researchers like you! They synthesize information from primary sources to offer a unique viewpoint. You can think of a synthesis essay as a secondary source.

To synthesize means to connect different pieces of information like puzzle pieces into one cohesive argument or explanation.

Use the table below to gain a sense of the differences between primary and secondary sources.

SourceHow to useExample
As firsthand accounts, primary sources come from the time period or event you discuss in your essay.You can use primary sources to come up with your interpretations. They provide evidence to back up your ideas about what happened and why. You are writing an essay about how people have used the telephone over time. You look at old telephone company advertisements. From the ads, you learn telephones were originally marketed as efficiency and long-distance connection tools.
Secondary sources come after the fact. They use primary sources to analyze situations and explain what happened.Since secondary sources interpret primary sources, you can use them to complement and support your interpretations of primary sources. Based on what you found in your primary sources, you compare the telephone to the internet. You use a quote from an article that explains how the internet has replaced the telephone for increasing efficiency and long-distance connection. It helps you understand your primary sources and support your ideas.

Sometimes secondary sources are used as primary sources. It all depends on how you are using them.

Just remember:

  • If you use a source to draw your own conclusions, you are using it as a primary source.
  • If you use a source to borrow someone else's conclusions to support your own, you are using it as a secondary source.

To understand the Civil War, you might use a history textbook as a secondary source. It describes and interprets the Civil War, but it does not come from the Civil War period. You would use the information it provides to back up your ideas.

But what if you want to understand how the Civil War is taught? You might use a history textbook as a primary source. You would analyze the information it includes and the language it uses. You would use it to draw your own conclusions about how the Civil War is taught in history textbooks.

How to Tell the Difference Between Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

When determining whether a source is primary or secondary, ask yourself two key questions:

  1. Does this source come from someone directly involved in my subject? Or does it come from someone who does not have direct experience with my subject but knows a lot about it?
  1. `How do I plan to use this source? Will I analyze this source to draw my own conclusions? Or will I use this source for background information and/or other peoples' ideas on my subject?

Purpose of Primary Sources

Primary sources are important for conducting original research, providing credible evidence, and becoming an authority on your subject. Without primary sources, nobody would ever come up with new ideas! They are the foundation of original research.

Primary Sources, Credibility and Authority, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Primary sources help out.

Primary Sources Give You Access to the Unknown

Whenever you want to know a store's business hours, you usually look it up online. But how did that information get online? Somebody found out the store's business hours from a primary source. They either visited the store directly or asked somebody that works there.

Think of primary sources as information directly from the time, place, or person you want to know about.

Primary Sources Provide Credible Evidence

Have you ever heard the phrase "straight from the horse's mouth"? This phrase comes from horse racing. It means the best source on who will win a race is the horses themselves! Think of primary sources as the "horse's mouth" here. There is no better source than one which comes directly from the time, location, or event you are studying.

Primary sources make you the authority on your subject

Secondary sources are great for getting other people's ideas on your subject. But primary sources make you the expert! You are the one who has seen direct evidence and figured out what it means.

Types of Primary Sources with Examples

There are two key types of primary sources: historical and current. Within these types of primary sources, there are several different sources you could use.

Historical Primary Sources

Historical primary sources are sources used to learn about a historical event or experience. Historical primary sources come directly from the historical era you are studying. These can include any archival materials, historical objects, or texts that come from that era.

Look at the table below for some examples of historical primary sources:

Historical primary sourceExamples
Audio & musicsheet music, audio recording of a speech, audio recording of an oral history, music recordings
Visualworks of art, photographs, maps, scrapbooks
Printed textsnewspaper clippings and archives, magazine archives, books printed during the historical era, printed advertisements, pamphlets
Ephemera (sources created for only a short period of time)ticket stubs, postcards, stickers, collectible cards
Public recordscensus & tax records, marriage & divorce records, church & synagogue records, land & title records, military records, court reports, deeds & wills
Objects & artifactsclothing, jewelry, accessories, furniture, technological devices from the historical era, toys & games
Handwrittendiaries, letters, journals
PersonalOral histories from people you know, interviews you have conducted with people who lived in the historical era, family histories & documents

Current Primary Sources

Current primary sources are sources you use to learn about modern-day subjects. Current primary sources help you learn about recent issues and events. These can include any digital, print, or physical objects that are directly tied to your subject.

Look at the table below for examples of current primary sources:

Current primary sourceExamples
Audio & musicsheet music, digital music downloads, CDs, audio recordings of interviews
Visualmodern works of art, print or digital photographs & maps, maps, digital navigation tools, graphic designs
Printed textsnews reports, op-eds, magazines (print & digital), works of literature
Datagovernment datasets, industry data sources, survey data, poll data, economic statistics
Digital contentemails, blogs, social media posts, digital publications
Reports & studiescase studies, business reports, field notes or observations, interviews
Videovideo recordings of interviews, video recordings of speeches or events, YouTube videos, films, television programs

How to Use Primary Sources in a Synthesis Essay

In a synthesis essay, you use primary sources by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Since you are blending multiple sources in a synthesis essay, it's important to blend these methods as well. Don't rely too much on summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting. Good synthesizing uses a balanced blend of all three.

Read on for a closer look at each method of using primary sources in a synthesis essay.

Primary source. A camera phone captures a car driving down a snowy road. StudySmarter.Fig. 3 - Primary sources capture a moment.

Summarizing Primary Sources

When you want to describe the main idea of a primary source, you can summarize it. When you summarize, you broadly explain the gist of a source. Summaries work best when you don't need any specific ideas or quotes from a source. This is particularly helpful when you are using a large amount of primary sources. Summarizing them can help you draw general conclusions from them.

The JK Museum of Telephony's AUTOVON exhibit demonstrates how the American military created a worldwide telephone system in the 1960s. The phones used in this system often had similar features, such as red direct call buttons and hardwired cords.1

When summarizing, keep it brief. Focus only on the main point of the primary source you are using. Ask yourself: what matters about this source in general?

Paraphrasing Primary Sources

Sometimes a brief summary is not enough! For these moments, you can paraphrase. Paraphrasing is summarizing key points of a source. For example, you might describe an artifact or historical object in detail. Or you might explain two key ideas from an interview or news article.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tries to teach the reader how to be successful. He suggests rising earlier than everyone else, working until it's dark, and speaking your mind are the keys to success.2

Quoting Primary Sources

Sometimes you need to use the direct words of a primary source. You might want to analyze those words or use them as an example of your argument. When you use the exact words of a source, it's called a direct quote. Direct quotes are useful for showing the reader exactly what was said in a source. This is helpful when you are analyzing handwritten sources or published texts.

In Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Wollstonecraft alleviates the fears of her male readers that reading would keep women from their domestic duties: "No employment of the mind is a sufficient excuse for neglecting domestic duties, and I cannot conceive that they are incompatible. A woman may fit herself to be the companion and friend of a man of sense, and yet know how to take care of his family."3

When using a direct quote, be sure to explain how it connects to your own ideas. You can't expect the reader to figure this out for themselves! Make it clear why you chose your quote and why it matters for your argument.

Primary Source - Key Takeaways

  • Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it.
  • There are two key differences between primary sources and secondary sources: a) where they come from and b) how you use them.
  • There are two key types of primary sources: historical and current. Within these types of primary sources, there are several different sources you could use.
  • You can use historical primary sources to learn about a historical event or experience and current primary sources to learn about modern-day subjects.
  • In a synthesis essay, you use primary sources by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Good writing uses a blend of all three.

1 JKL Museum of Telephony. "AUTOVON: Telephones and Equipment." 2014.

2 Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. 1791.

3 Mary Wollstonecraft. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life. 1787.

Frequently Asked Questions about Primary Source

A primary source is a firsthand account of a topic from people who had direct connection with it.

Some examples of primary sources are artifacts and objects, newspaper clippings, diaries, sheet music, audio recordings, datasets, and public records.

Basic primary source materials are the core source materials used in an essay. They are the primary sources you base your arguments upon. 

The types of primary sources are historical primary sources and current primary sources. Historical primary sources are used to learn about historical subjects, while current primary sources are used to learn about modern-day subjects.

Final Primary Source Quiz

Question

What do primary sources provide evidence of? 

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Answer

Primary sources provide evidence of the people, events, or phenomena that are being researched.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of primary sources?

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Answer

Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. 

Show question

Question

What are the two key differences between secondary and primary sources?

Show answer

Answer

where they come from


Show question

Question

What are secondary sources

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Answer

Secondary sources are sources that provide second-hand explanations or analyses of primary sources

Show question

Question

A synthesis essay is a form of what type of source? 

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Answer

secondary source

Show question

Question

What does it mean to synthesize?

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Answer

To synthesize means to connect different pieces of information like puzzle pieces into one cohesive argument or explanation.

Show question

Question

If a source comes from the historical time period a researcher is studying, what type of source is it?

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Answer

primary source

Show question

Question

True or False:

Secondary sources can be used as primary sources.

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Answer

True! If a researcher analyzes a secondary source to draw their own conclusions, they are using it as a primary source.

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Question

What are some of the purposes of primary sources?

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Answer

They give access to the uknown

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Question

Finish this sentence: 

Historical primary sources are used to _____.

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Answer

Historical primary sources are used to learn about a historical event or experience.

Show question

Question

A researcher uses marriage records to identify how often young women got married in 19th century Massachusetts. 


What type of primary source is this an example of? 

Show answer

Answer

historical primary source

Show question

Question

What is ephemera?

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Answer

Ephemera are sources created for only a short period of time. For example, postcards and ticket stubs are only created for short-term use. 

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Question

What are some examples of objects and artifacts that can be used as historical primary sources? 

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Answer

clothing

Show question

Question

What are current primary sources used to learn about? 

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Answer

Current primary sources are used to learn about modern-day subjects.

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Question

A researcher analyzes the social media posts of young people to understand how they communicate about mental health in these spaces. 


What type of primary source is this an example of? 

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Answer

current primary sources

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Question

What are some examples of data one can use as current primary sources?

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Answer

government datasets

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Question

A researchers wants to convey the main idea of a primary source they are analyzing. How can they best do this? 

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Answer

summarize

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Question

Paraphrasing summarizes what?

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Answer

a key point or two from a source

Show question

Question

When a researcher needs to share the exact words of a primary source, what is this called? 

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Answer

direct quote

Show question

Question

These are ticket stubs, postcards, stickers, etc.

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Answer

Ephemera

Show question

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