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