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What is a Primary Resource?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2016
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A primary resource is a research resource closely connected to the subject being studied. A number of fields including history, archeology, and sociology utilize primary resources and distinguish between these and secondary or tertiary resources. For many types of research, the primary resource is considered the gold standard, providing information unfiltered by the opinions of others.

In history, primary resources are materials dating to the period under study. They can include letters, diaries, and works of art. These resources are valuable as they allow historians to study materials as they appeared at the time, in contrast with secondary resources like scholarly criticism of works of art from that period. Using primary resources, historians can learn more about how people during the period under investigation thought, worked, and processed the world around them.

Artifacts, as well as discussions of such, can be valuable primary resource material in archeology. Archaeologists can study artifacts and examine writings about them produced by contemporaries to learn more about how they fit into society. Looking at documents from people who encountered those artifacts at various periods can provide additional information about when damage occurred and how, and how other artifacts from other cultures may have been received and examined.

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A person can be a primary resource, as in the case of a witness to an event or the subject of an autobiography. Testimony from people in the form of diaries, letters, recorded interviews, and other materials can be valuable for contextualizing events and collecting information about them from people experienced them firsthand. Primary resources can also include things like original scientific studies, including demographic analysis, epidemiology studies on various populations, and other types of studies.

Accessing a primary resource can be difficult. Original documents and works of art are often fragile in addition to valuable and they are kept under protection. People may need to travel to libraries and archives to access material for research and it helps to have academic credentials and established relationships with curators, professors, and librarians.

Secondary resources can also be valuable in some settings. They can sometimes provide a starting point for people attempting to develop original research, as many have extensive resource lists indicating where they collected information. Reading analysis of a subject under study can also provide people with a new view on the subject along with ideas they may want to incorporate into their research. People using such sources must exercise caution and review them with a grain of salt, as the people who produced the sources filter the material being presented and inevitably slant the presentation.

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