Most research papers in the arts and humanities require use of primary and secondary sources for critical analysis and support of ideas. But what is a primary source and what is a secondary source? Figuring this out can be complicated!
What is a Primary Source?
The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association offers a historical definition of a primary source, to wit:
"primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories." [RUSA, "Using Primary Sources on the Web," accessed January 2014 through http://www.ala.org/rusa/sections/history/resources/pubs/usingprimarysources]
Another useful definition is provided by Sylvan Barnet, who describes primary sources as the subject of study, and secondary sources as materials written about the primary sources. [Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005), 240.]
Some Examples of Primary Sources
Ordinarily, a primary source is thought of as being unique, such as, for example:
The reality is, however, that not all primary sources are unique. Some have been republished or reproduced multiple times. Here are some examples:
What is a Secondary Source?
Regardless of what "primary" source is appropriate for the context of your research project, your and others' critical analysis of it are secondary sources.
I highly recommend the USC Libraries Primary Source Guide, created by Beth Namei, for information on collections of primary resources and recommendations for evaluating primary sources.