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Primary source databases

Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to original ideas, events, and empirical research as possible. Such sources include creative works, first hand accounts of events, and the publication of empirical observations or research.

At one time, finding good primary sources meant traveling to libraries and archives to view original documents. Now an increasing amount of this material has been scanned or digitized and is available online, either in open repositories or through subscription databases. Google is a great tool for finding open repositories, along with OAIster from WorldCat.

See also our list of historical newspapers.

Discovery Search indexes many sources of primary documents; the lists of databases below offer additional sources.

In the humanities and social sciences, primary sources are the direct evidence or first-hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. A primary source is a work that was created or written contemporary with the period or subject being studied. Secondary sources analyze or interpret historical events or creative works.

Primary sources

  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Original works of art
  • Photographs
  • Speeches
  • Works of literature

primary source is an original document containing firsthand information about a topic. Different fields of study may use different types of primary sources.

Secondary sources

  • Biographies
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies (used to locate a secondary source)
  • Journal articles
  • Monographs

secondary source contains commentary on or discussion about a primary source. The most important feature of secondary sources is that they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources.

Tertiary sources

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks

tertiary source presents summaries or condensed versions of materials, usually with references back to the primary and/or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material.

Examples

Subject Primary Secondary Tertiary
Art Painting Critical review of the painting Encyclopedia article on the artist
History Civil War diary Book on a Civil War Battle List of battle sites
Literature Novel or poem Essay about themes in the work Biography of the author
Political science Geneva Convention Article about prisoners of war Chronology of treaties

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Research portal pages' text and linked PDFs by Virginia Tech Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. (Cover and other images are not included in the CC license and are used under Fair Use.)

In the sciences, primary sources are documents that provide full description of the original research. For example, a primary source would be a journal article where scientists describe their research on the genetics of tobacco plants. A secondary source would be an article commenting or analyzing the scientists' research on tobacco.

Primary sources

  • Conference proceedings
  • Interviews
  • Journals
  • Lab notebooks
  • Patents
  • Preprints
  • Technical reports
  • Theses and dissertations

These are where the results of original research are usually first published in the sciences. This makes them the best source of information on cutting edge topics. However the new ideas presented may not be fully refined or validated yet.

Secondary sources

  • Monographs
  • Reviews
  • Textbooks
  • Treatises

These tend to summarize the existing state of knowledge in a field at the time of publication. Secondary sources are good to find comparisons of different ideas and theories and to see how they may have changed over time.

Tertiary sources

  • Compilations
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
  • Tables

These types of sources present condensed material, generally with references back to the primary and/or secondary literature. They can be a good place to look up data or to get an overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material.

Examples

Subjects Primary Secondary Tertiary
Agriculture Conference paper on tobacco genetics Review article on the current state of tobacco research Encyclopedia article on tobacco
Chemistry Chemical patent Book on chemical reactions Table of related reactions
Physics Einstein's diary Biography on Einstein Dictionary of relativity

Creative Commons License
Research portal pages' text and linked PDFs by Virginia Tech Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. (Cover and other images are not included in the CC license and are used under Fair Use.)

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