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Archives and Special Collections at Southeastern: Identifying Primary Sources

This guide is designed to introduce researchers to Archives and Special Collections at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Identifying Primary Sources

Many college and seminary class papers and projects will require that you utilize primary sources in your research. In such cases, it is important to remember that factors such as age or medium do not make a source inherently primary our secondary. The same source can function as a primary and a secondary source in different research situations. Rather, a source becomes primary or secondary depending upon how the context of its creation aligns with the focus of your research.

The following three steps will help you learn to determine if a source functions as primary or secondary for your research project.

Step 1: Define Your Research Topic

The first step in identify primary sources is to clearly understand the scope and parameters of your research. Ask yourself basic questions about the research project such as the following.

  • What is the event, topic, or idea that I am studying?
  • Is there a specific beginning date and end date within which I will be examining this event, topic, or idea?
  • Whose actions, reactions, or perspectives am I analyzing in relationship to the event, topic, or idea I am studying?

Step 2: Determine the Context of the Source's Creation

Next, you need to analyze the source and its relationship to your research. Ask some basic questions about the source you are examining such as the following.

  • Who created this source and what was his/her/their relationship to the event, topic, or idea I am studying?
  • When was this source created and how does it align with the date parameters of my research?
  • Does this source represent an eyewitness account or direct evidence documenting the communication of the idea(s) I am studying?

Step 3: Decide if the Source Functions as Primary and Secondary

Primary Sources

Any source that was created during the time period under study (or later recalled by a witness) which provides first-hand testimony or direct evidence documenting the specific event, practice, or condition being examined.

Secondary Sources

Any source removed from the immediate time period or context of the topic under investigation which analyzes, interprets, or synthesizes information available in primary sources.


Example 1

Research Topic: Reactions of Baptist ministers to the United States Civil War from 1860-1865

Primary Sources

  • Correspondence written by Baptist ministers from 1860-1865
  • Diaries and journals written by Baptist ministers from 1860-1865
  • Sermons delivered by Baptist ministers from 1860-1865 that address war in general or the Civil War in particular
  • Newspaper articles written by Baptist ministers from 1860-1865 focused on war in general and the Civil War in particular

Secondary Sources

  • Fuller, A. James. Chaplain to the Confederacy: Basil Manly and Baptist Life in the Old South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000.
  • Wesley, Timothy L. The Politics of Faith During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2013.
  • A biographical magazine article on a Baptist Civil War chaplain published in 1900.

Example 2

Source: Bailey, Thomas A, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen, eds. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Eleventh Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

This source, like most textbooks, almost always serves as a secondary source. However, if you are researching the presentation of religious topics in United States history survey textbooks in the Twentieth Century, it becomes a primary source.