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Explore Information — Primary & Secondary Sources - Humanities & Social Sciences

Primary & Secondary Sources in the Humanities - Overview

Primary and Secondary Sources are understood in different ways by different subject areas. When you think about primary and secondary sources in your own life, those examples are probably most similar to the way the Humanities and Social Sciences generally understand primary and secondary sources.  See the guide What is a Primary Source for a concise overview.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original materials on which research is based. They present information in its original form, neither interpreted nor condensed nor evaluated by other writers.  In the humanities and social sciences, these are the direct or first-hand evidence of events, objects, people, or works of art. 

Depending upon the context, primary sources can include items such as original artwork, manuscripts, sales receipts, speeches, e-mails,  photos, diaries, personal letters, spoken stories/tales/interviews, diplomatic records.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources provide commentary upon, interpretation of, or analysis of primary sources.  They put primary sources in context.  Because they are often written significantly after events by parties not directly involved but who have special expertise, they may provide historical context or critical perspectives.

Secondary sources can include items such as scholarly books; articles in newspapers, scholarly journals, and magazines; movie reviews; biographies.

Finding Primary Sources

There are lots of places to start searching for primary sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Below are some places to start your search.

Library Search

Library Search finds items in the UConn Library Collection, including archival materials, print materials with original text, printed facsimiles, and online resources that link to digital facsimiles. 

For help finding primary sources using Library Search, see the Using the Library Search (Catalog) to Find Primary Sources tab.


Archives & Special Collections holds over 1000 collections of archival materials and primary sources. Primary sources from cultural institutions around the state of Connecticut can also be found in the Connecticut Digital Archive.

Research Guides

Library Subject Specialists create Research Guides that provide information and instruction on research within specific subjects.  Each guide varies, and may include primary source databases and other helpful resources in that field.  For additional help finding primary sources in a subject, contact the subject specialist profiled in the specific research guide.

Selected Primary Source Library Databases and Websites

Library Search finds items in the UConn Library Collection

To search for primary source materials, use the Advanced Search

Search Using Primary Document-Related Terms

Add words that identify types of primary sources. These are often part of the Subject Heading, a search option in Advanced Search.  These terms may include:

personal narratives correspondence interview letters
sources speeches diaries manuscripts
(Note that some terms work better than others depending on the topic)

In the Advanced Search, type your topic on the 1st line. On the 2nd line, change the Any field drop-down to Subject and use of the the subject headings that specify primary sources.

sample subject heading search for primary document types

Search Using Date

Narrow your search to the year of publication to find contemporary materials.

Search Using Author

Search a person's name as an author (changing the Any field drop-down to Author).  Search by author, not as a subject or keyword, as that will find materials about the person, not works by the person.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Source Secondary Source
Letter from Abraham Lincoln Biography about Abraham Lincoln
The Mona Lisa An essay about the landscape in the painting
Geneva Convention Article about treatment of prisoners of war

A picture of a band
Photo of the band Fugazi from the University Archives

Article analyzing the global impact of the band
clip of article

Caption: Fugazi Playing the Anthrax Club, Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Library.
Caption: Dunn, K. (2008). Never mind the bollocks: The punk rock politics of global communication. Review of International Studies, 34(S1), 193-210.

It's All About Context

There is nothing that definitively makes a source "primary" or "secondary" - it's all about the relationship between your research topic and the source material.  The same source can be a primary source OR a secondary source, depending on how you are studying it.

For example, Stephen Oates' 1977 biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Toward None: A Life Of Abraham Lincoln, could be considered a

  • Secondary Source, if you are studying the life of Lincoln
  • Primary Source, if you are studying texts accused of plagiarism

Check Yourself!

Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources for Humanities

Test your ability to identify items as primary or secondary sources in this quick, interactive exercise!