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How To Use Primary Sources In An Essay



A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source.




how to use primary sources in an essay


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Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, and to help familiarize ourselves with a topic and compare that topic with other events in history.


If you've never written a research paper using primary sources, it is important to understand that the process is different from using only secondary sources. Many students discover that finding and gaining access to primary source documents can be difficult. The Library website has a valuable guide to locating primary source documents. Follow the link below to be redirected to that guide:


After locating appropriate primary sources, it is necessary for students to analyze and interpret them. To many students, this task can seem arduous, if not overwhelming. There are many resources available in the library as well as online, which are helpful. The National Archives website has very useful analysis worksheets that can help students to determine the significance of primary source documents. Links to PDF files of these worksheets are listed below:


It is important to provide complete information about your primary source whether found in a printed source or online. The basic elements to include in a citation for a published print source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the book if different from the document, name of editor or author of the book, place of publication, publisher, year, and page numbers. The basic elements to include in a citation for an online source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the website, author or producer of the website, url, date (if given) and date accessed. Various style formats such as Chicago, MLA and APA put these elements in different order using different conventions. See the websites below for further information and examples.


Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era. Helping students analyze primary sources can also prompt curiosity and improve critical thinking and analysis skills.


Primary sources expose students to multiple perspectives on significant issues of the past and present. In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials. Interacting with primary sources engages students in asking questions, evaluating information, making inferences, and developing reasoned explanations and interpretations of events and issues.


Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events. Because primary sources are incomplete snippets of history, each one represents a mystery that students can only explore further by finding new pieces of evidence.


Offer students opportunities to demonstrate their learning by writing an essay, delivering a speech taking a stand on an issue in the primary sources, or creating a museum display about a historical topic. For more follow-up activity ideas, take a look at the general or format-specific teacher's guides.


Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence. Examples include interview transcripts, statistical data, and works of art. Primary research gives you direct access to the subject of your research.


Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books. Thus, secondary research describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.


  • Table of contentsWhat is a primary source?

  • What is a secondary source?

  • Primary and secondary source examples

  • How to tell if a source is primary or secondary

  • Primary vs secondary sources: which is better?

  • Frequently asked questions about primary and secondary sources



If you are researching the past, you cannot directly access it yourself, so you need primary sources that were produced at the time by participants or witnesses (e.g. letters, photographs, newspapers).


If you are researching something current, your primary sources can either be qualitative or quantitative data that you collect yourself (e.g. through interviews, surveys, experiments) or sources produced by people directly involved in the topic (e.g. official documents or media texts).


A secondary source can become a primary source depending on your research question. If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is the main focus of your research, it becomes a primary source.


If you are researching the causes of World War II, a recent documentary about the war is a secondary source. But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, the documentary is a primary source.


Most research uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other to help you build a convincing argument. Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but secondary sources show how your work relates to existing research. Tertiary sources are often used in the first, exploratory stage of research.


Secondary sources are good for gaining a full overview of your topic and understanding how other researchers have approached it. They often synthesize a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:


When you conduct a literature review or meta analysis, you can consult secondary sources to gain a thorough overview of your topic. If you want to mention a paper or study that you find cited in a secondary source, seek out the original source and cite it directly.


Some types of source are nearly always primary: works of art and literature, raw statistical data, official documents and records, and personal communications (e.g. letters, interviews). If you use one of these in your research, it is probably a primary source.


In historical studies, old articles are used as primary sources that give direct evidence about the time period. In social and communication studies, articles are used as primary sources to analyze language and social relations (for example, by conducting content analysis or discourse analysis).


In source-based or synthesis writing, we try to not only express our ideas using our own voice, but to also express our ideas through the voices of those we are citing. In their book Wriiting Analytically, Rosenwasser and Stephen offer six strategies to use in researched writing to make our sources speak, to make them come alive.


Primary and secondary sources are nothing to fear. Many times we either leave sources to speak for themselves or ignore them altogether because we are afraid of losing our own voices. These strategies, listed below, are designed to help us know when and how to use quotes, and how not to become lost in the process.


v Use your selections from your sources as a means to raise issues and questions; avoid the temptation to use selections that provide answers without any commentary or further elaboration. If you feel stuck with this, consider the source alongside other contexts (other sources, for example) and compare and contrast them to see if there are aspects of your topic that your source does not adequately address.


v This is an extension of strategy 2. Rather than limiting yourself to the only conversationalist with each source, aim for conversation among them. Although it is not wrong to agree or disagree with your sources, it is wrong to see these as your only possible moves. You should also understand that although it is sometimes useful and perhaps even necessary to agree or disagree, these judgments should 1) always be qualified and 2) occur only in certain contexts. Instead of looking just at how you agree or disagree, try to imagine what these critics might say to one another. Looking at sources in this way may prove useful as you explore your topics further in depth.


v Instead of summarizing everything first and then leaving your analysis until the end, analyze as you quote or paraphrase a source. This will help yield good conversation, by integrating your analysis of your sources into your presentation of them.


Are your sources presented throughout the paper with careful analysis attending to each one? Or are you presenting all your sources first, and analyzing them later? Look through your paper, and mark places where you see yourself not analyzing your sources as you go. Also: are there places where you see too much analysis, and not enough evidence? Be sure to mark those places as well.


Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:


While much of what you will write in an English essay is based on your own analysis of a text, there is certainly a place for research and the use of secondary sources in an English essay. Research helps you to define or explain


As soon as you use your first secondary source, you are venturing into research. Research essays are based on information and opinion that you find and read; however, this information and opinion need to be synthesized and assimilated by you, so you can express, in turn, what you know and think about the subject.


Many undergraduate English essays do not require extensive use of secondary sources. Critical editions of literary works, the library stacks, online indexes and subject guides should yield plenty with which to work. Finding good secondary sources is, of course, only a first step. The second step is to use them properly.


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