Western Libraries

Primary Source Literacy



Information Literacy Learning Outcome: discovery and critical evaluation

  1. Distinguish primary from secondary sources for a given research question. Demonstrate an understanding of the interrelatedness of primary and secondary sources for research.
  2. Articulate what might serve as primary sources for a specific research project within the framework of an academic discipline or area of study.
  3. Draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.
  4. Understand that research is an iterative process and that as primary sources are found and analyzed the research question(s) may change.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are original informational materials that were recorded at the time that a particular event or activity occurred and that provide some form of raw documentary evidence. Primary sources typically do not analyze, assess, or interpret the historical event taking place. The concept of what makes a source “primary” relies on the research question at hand, varies based on the discipline, depends on the interplay with secondary sources, and is subject to the different interpretive processes researchers bring to their projects.

Hartness Library. "Primary vs. Secondary Sources." Youtube Video, 3:17. January 25, 2017. https://youtu.be/gStyna348M0. 

Generating Research Questions

To generate a research question using primary sources, students should:

  • Have some background knowledge on the topic at hand. Primary sources can be a good jumping off point when beginning research using secondary sources or vice versa. Primary source materials may inspire students to investigate a topic, or students may need to look for primary sources when they cannot find secondary sources about their topic.

  • Ask guiding questions about the primary sources: What do you know just by reading/viewing/listening to the primary source? What is immediately apparent?

  • Ask essential questions about the primary sources: What impact could the primary source have had on the individual/community/society/world at large? What could have caused the creation of the primary source? Does this primary source change our understanding of a historical event or contemporary issue? How does this primary source compare to other primary sources?

To refine a research question using primary sources, students should: ​

  • Create a research question that is clear and answerable

  • Ensure that their research question is argumentative and not descriptive, nor answered by a simple "yes" or "no"

  • Plan to use primary sources as evidence to back up their argument, without overusing excerpts or direct quotes

  • Define a focus that is narrow enough to fit their assignment or project. Students should ask themselves: Has this been done before? What has already been written about on this topic, and does my research question overlap?

Primary Sources by Discipline

The following flow chart demonstrates how primary sources can vary widely according to discipline. 


Outline of Flow Chart
  1. Primary Sources

    1. History

      1. Diaries

      2. Correspondence

      3. Maps

    2. Film Studies

      1. Original Negatives

      2. Screenplays or Shooting Scripts

      3. Edit Lists

    3. Psychology

      1. Original Research

      2. Psychological Tests

    4. Political Science

      1. Census Data

      2. Newspaper Articles

      3. Reports