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Primary Sources: FAQs

What is a primary source?

"Some materials are primary. This means that with respect to your project they are data. These can be manuscripts, archives, documents, censuses, reports, and so on" (7).

Abbott, Andrew. Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials. U of Chicago P, 2014

What is a secondary source?

"[O]ther material is secondary: it asks roughly the same questions as you do and uses the same kinds of data. Secondary material is other scholarship on your topic" (7).

Abbott, Andrew. Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials. U of Chicago P, 2014

Why is the distinction confusing?

"[The distinction] fits some disciplines better than others: it works very well for history, in which primary sources are materials directly connected to a historical event or moment. . . . But it works less well for, say, philosophy, chemistry, or nursing" (67).

"[The distinction] is not absolute but relative to a researcher's project. In most instances, an article in a scholarly journal would generally be considered a secondary source. But it would become a primary source if your research problem concerned its author or the field itself: if, for example, you are writing the author's biography or trying to figure out whether patriotic historians have distorted stories of the Alamo" (67-68).

Booth, Wayne C., et al. The Craft of Research. 4th ed., U of Chicago P, 2016

Why is there a distinction between primary and secondary sources?

"The distinction between primary and secondary sources originated with historians in the nineteenth century and then spread to other fields" (67).

Booth, Wayne C., et al. The Craft of Research. 4th ed., U of Chicago P, 2016