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This guide will help you get started with your topic, find books and articles, evaluate sources, and use library services.

manuscript describing the establishment of the library at Georgetown

What are primary sources?

Primary Sources

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, usually by witnesses or people who were involved in the event. Many primary sources were created at the time of the event but can also include memoirs, oral interviews, or accounts that were recorded later. Other examples include:

  • Photos, original artwork, posters, and films, not only for the factual information they contain, but also for the insight they may provide into how people view their world.  

  • Sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated but not interpreted.

  • In the sciences or social sciences, primary sources report the results of an experiment. 

Secondary Sources

  • Secondary sources offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources.

  • Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but also use them to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion. Examples of secondary sources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books and articles that interpret, analyze, or review research works.

Some Sources May be Both Primary and Secondary

It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a particular source is primary or secondary, because the same source can be a primary source for one topic and a secondary source for another topic.  David McCullough’s biography, John Adams, could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams.

Examples of Primary & Secondary Sources
Subject Primary Source Secondary Source
Art original artwork article critiquing a piece of art
History slave diary book about the underground railroad
Literature poem book or article on a particular genre of poetry
Political Science treaty essay on Native American land rights
Science or Social Sciences report of an original experiment review of several studies on the same topic
Theater video of a performance biography of a playwright


Booth Family Center for Special Collections (Lauinger Library)

Healy clock towerThe Booth Family Center for Special Collections is home to Georgetown University’s rare books, manuscript collections, the Georgetown University Archives, and the University Art Collection.  Located on the fifth floor of Lauinger Library, it preserves and protects primary resources and unique items for future generations. Georgetown students are encouraged to take advantage of these collections. For more information, follow the links below:

Georgetown University Archives


Rare Books

University Art Collection

Other Special Collections at Georgetown

Contact Special Collections

Digital Collections

Here are a few digital primary source collections to start with. More resources are listed on the Primary Sources guide.

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