Research: Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources are eye-witness accounts.  If you are reading the words of an eye-witness, listening to a tape, or checking out photographs or artifacts, these are all primary sources.  You can find primary sources in museums and archives.

But you can also find primary sources in print.  Diaries, letters and even articles written by the researcher who collected the data (see scholarly journals and National Geographic) are primary sources.  This is true even if the published collection of letters lists an editor or the published diary includes a translator.

How is this possible?

Primary sources are uninterrupted.  A good translator isn’t interpreting the text of a letter or journal, but simply making it available to those who read a language different from the original document.  An editor who selects which letters go into a print publication is not altering the letters’ content.  There is no interpretation. Because of this even excerpts are considered primary sources.

I have recently been told that some people say that translations and published letters that list an editor are considered secondary.  To be certain, I googled it.  First I searched “translations primary sources.”  Then I searched “translations not primary sources.”  Everything I found, I’ll provide a brief selection below, so that translations, edited collections and excerpts are all primary.

What if your editor says, “No, I don’t include those as primary sources.  You have to see the entire letter or read the diary in the original Italian”? Fine.  Then I would try to find a different source.  Or I just wouldn’t list it as a primary source.  In all truth, most often I just include a bibliography.  I don’t generally divide it between primary and secondary.

Here are the sources I mentioned:

The Harvard Library Research Guide section, “Knowing a Primary Source When You See One.

The research guide for The University of Wisconsin – Madison library system.

A PDF research guide created by the Saint Mary’s University Twin Cities Campus Library.

If any of you know of a source that says translations, excerpts and published collected works are not primary, please let me know!

–SueBE

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