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Research Services: Analyzing Primary Sources


Primary Sources: A primary source is a source of information that was created during the time under study. Primary sources can be anything from documents to artifacts to photographs to recordings to social media posts. 

Secondary Sources: A secondary source is an analytical work created by researching primary sources and other secondary sources. Secondary sources include books, articles, reviews, textbooks, biographies, and indexes. 

Tertiary Sources: A tertiary source is a synthesis of topics generated from related primary and secondary sources. Examples include timelines, chronologies, bibliographies, directories, handbooks, and encyclopedia entries. 

Definitions modified from Stony Brook University Libraries. 

Analyzing Primary Sources

Use the guide below to help you get started exploring and analyzing primary sources. 

Explore: Critically observe your sources. Consider the people, places, activities, words, numbers, and images present in the material. Consider the format and physical characteristics of the document or object. Use these points to help guide your thinking: 

  • Who?
    • Who created the material? 
    • What biographical information is present in the material?
  • When?
    • When was the material created?
    • Where was it created?
  • What?
    • What information does the material contain?
    • What stands out to you? 
    • How is the information composed? What is the format? 

Connect: Based on what you've observed, try to situate the material in its historical context.

  • What historical or social events might have influenced its production? 

Explain: Use what you've learned from observing the materials and the information you have about its context to make inferences about the meaning and purpose of the material.

  • Why was the material created?
  • What audience was the creator trying to reach?
  • What was the creator's stake in producing the material?


  • What have you learned from the material?
  • How did you come to those conclusions?
  • What information do you still need to learn to deepen your understanding? How will you find that information?