Answered By: Deborah Kelley-Milburn
Last Updated: Nov 18, 2016     Views: 281

People can sometimes be primary sources, but not always.

A primary source is something or someone that gives you first-hand documentation of an event or phenomenon. Resources can either be essentially primary in nature or primary relative to the event or phenomenon concerned. Resources that are primary by their very nature include vital records, like a birth certificate or marriage certificate.

Most resources are primary relative to the event or phenomenon under study. For example, Samule Pepys's diary, which documents his life and provides eyewitness accounts of the plague and great fire of London, is a primary resource relative to those events. Likewise, a newspaper article that documents first hand accounts of a crime is a primary source relative to that crime.

Now, consider a newspaper opinion piece that discusses Occupy Wall Street. Consider that this column or letter to the editor--whatever it is--was written by someone who had not directly witnessed or been involved in planning or attending any demonstrations, but had merely seen news accounts on TV or in the newspaper (or on YouTube, etc.). This little article would not be considered a primary source today for purposes of giving an account of what happened on a given day at an Occupy Wall Street protest or even for documenting the purpose of the movement. However, several years from now, it could serve as a primary source relative to learning what was the public sentiment surrounding the Occupy Wall STreet movement. Also, if nearly every other piece of evidence of that movement somehow were to disappear, it might serve as a primary resource relative to that event in the sense that it documents the existence of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In a nutshell, an interview with a professor might be a primary resource if the information you're getting from the professor is in some way a first-hand, eyewitness or direct experience account of whatever it is you're writing about. If you're writing about how Baroque music has influenced modern composers, and the professor is explaining his/her process of writing music in a neo-Baroque style, and how Baroque music inspires the writing/performance, then what the professor says would arguably be primary. On the other hand, if the professor is simply explaining what he/she knows about Baroque music (while not discussing any original contribution he/she has made), then the profesor is probably providing you with secondary source information, similar to what you might find in a book or article that synthesizes a great deal of information.

You might find this guide to Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary sources helpful. I would also suggest discussing this with the professor who will be grading your work.

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