The Difference Between a Primary and a Secondary Source

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Writing content can be exhausting. As we race from one project to the next—often with little in our bellies, empty coffee cups and cigarette packs littering our desks, and concerns about the proper usage of the semicolon or what to capitalize in a title more prominent in our minds than the actual point we are supposed to be making—we sometimes forget that good writing should always bring something new to the table. We are being hired to provide a unique perspective.

Think of most famous columnists. What makes them famous is their ability to digest the news in a way that others cannot. These columnists will also be able to rip away the layers of spin and propaganda in order to reveal various truths that others have overlooked. One of the reasons for this is because good columnists use primary sources on top of secondary sources in order to strengthen their arguments.

What is a Primary Source?

As a history student at NYU, I was taught never to write any serious paper without referencing at least one primary source. This was never easy. Primary sources are old. They are the raw materials of historical argument, the stuff coated in thick layers of dust and stored in the least populated regions of the library. They are things like:








The list goes on, and includes creative works, provided they were created during the time period in question. The important thing to remember with primary sources is that they are first-hand accounts of the subject matter or are, in themselves, the subject matter.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources analyze primary sources. They are important for anyone conducting research, but it must be remembered that they add a layer of interpretation to the primary sources they examine. For example, a book discussing Thomas Jefferson’s views on architecture is a secondary source. The letters in which Thomas Jefferson describes his views on architecture are primary sources.

Secondary sources are important because they can serve as guides. They will often include references to primary source material that you can later read in toto. So, too, will they provide you with a context that you may have otherwise missed. They can also show you where to look for certain things so you do not have to blindly forage through massive amounts of irrelevant material just to find the one piece of evidence you actually needed.

There are several dangers when relying too heavily on secondary sources, however. For one, your views may become biased in favor of a particular secondary source. Second, you may, consequently, limit the degree of research that you do because you feel as though the issue has been thoroughly investigated. Third, your own work may lack uniqueness, since you are referencing the same sources that others have used. Finally, and most importantly, a secondary source may not be entirely accurate or may have taken what was quoted from the primary source out of context. If you fail to catch this, it can tarnish your own credibility.

Think back to the columnists. Instead of relying solely on the work of others, a good columnist reads the source material and comes to her own conclusion. She reads every word of the controversial bill being debated in Congress instead of glossing over the few passages that have become lightning rods. Her thoughts are not regurgitated; they are insightful, unique and comprehensive. This, in part, is why she is so successful. As writers, this is the model we should always strive to emulate.


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