Primary and Secondary Source Materials

Primary and Secondary Source Materials


Welcome to the BC Libraries Core Skills Tutorial
on Primary and Secondary Source Materials. This video will focus on the distinction between
primary and secondary sources. It will also give you a glimpse of the variety
of primary source material available here on campus. A primary source is a first-hand account of
an event, created by someone who witnessed or experienced it. Examples can include diaries, letters, essays,
memoirs, interviews, photographs, videos, and even newspaper and magazine articles,
Facebook posts, and Tweets – as long as the person composing them has first-hand knowledge
of the subject. A secondary source is created by someone who
did not witness or experience the event first-hand. Thus, the author must rely on other sources
of information. Examples of secondary sources can include
newspaper and magazine articles, essays, books, documentaries, and even Facebook posts and
Tweets – as long as the person composing them does NOT have first-hand knowledge of
the subject. Primary sources are closer to the event, but
secondary sources are important, too. Scholars and scientists continuously develop
new ways of looking at events and data. They give us new perspectives on information
we may already be familiar with. You can participate in this process by studying
primary sources, AND secondary sources, in order to produce your OWN interpretation of the event or data. Suppose you are researching student activism
on college campuses. For historical perspective, you might consult
BC’s archives. Because Lesliann Knight, the author of this
Heights article, witnessed the event she has written about, this is a PRIMARY source. To find more recent examples, you might search
for posts on social media. This Tweet reveals a prospective college student’s
attitude about campus activism. As an example of young people’s views on
this subject, it is a PRIMARY source. You may also want to search for scholarly
sources in the library catalog and databases. In this article, Neil Gilbert relies on other
sources in order to develop an interpretation of student activism. Thus, it is a SECONDARY source. Different academic disciplines may use different
terminology to talk about primary versus secondary sources, but ALL are concerned with the distinction
between sources CLOSE to the object of study, and sources FURTHER from that object. Perhaps in a history class you become interested
in the role Tip O’Neill played in 20th-century American politics. You could study John Farrell’s book on O’Neill. As a SECONDARY source, it would give you Farrell’s
perspective on O’Neill’s political life. But you could also look at some of the original
documents yourself. This is an excerpt of notes taken at one of
O’Neill’s press conferences. Because the person who took the notes was
present at the conference, they are a PRIMARY source. You may find something important here that
no one else has written about yet. The distinction between primary and secondary
sources works a little differently if you’re thinking about literature. For example, James Baldwin’s essay on the
movie Porgy and Bess could be a primary OR secondary source, depending on what you DO
with it. If you’re writing a paper on Baldwin’s
life, attitudes, or literary style, this essay would be a PRIMARY source because it expresses
his own thoughts in his own words. But if you’re writing about the film Porgy
and Bess, it would be a SECONDARY source because it is Baldwin’s interpretation of the film. Usually, the distinction between primary and
secondary sources is clear. For example, in preparing this article on
the gluten-free diet, the authors themselves collected the data. For this reason, most would consider it a
PRIMARY source. However, scientists may think differently
about such studies. When in doubt, consult your professor. And don’t forget to take advantage of the
BC special collections and archives. From the McMullen Museum to the Burns library,
from the Heights digital archive to the O’Neill papers, you have access to a great variety
of primary source material. BC librarians are happy to help you explore
them.

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