August 18th, 2008

Primarily Need Primary Resources?

The higher you go with your education, the more likely it is that you’ll be using primary resources for your research. By the time you are working on a dissertation, you may be using primary resources exclusively. Primary sounds important, but what does it really mean?Newspapers by Redvers

Primary resources come up a lot in some fields, especially history. And in a field like history, identifying a primary resource is pretty easy. It’s an item (document, image, etc.) that is from the place and period you are researching. Old diaries, photographs, and newspaper stories are common examples.

In other fields, primary resources are more difficult to identify. In fields that are driven by experimental and survey research, primary resources are the data and reports produced from that original (primary) research.

Think of it in terms of layers of interpretation. A researcher creates a research study and then writes up the results for a journal article. They are the first people to touch that specific research study – they have created a primary resource.

Later, someone else reads the study and talks about it in a book chapter. They are one step away from the original research, so they are creating a secondary resource.

You can even have a third layer (tertiary resources), where someone has summarized all the secondary research. These are typically textbooks or encyclopedias.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Every primary research article contains a literature review. That literature review is a mini-secondary resource that goes along with the primary research of the rest of the article. The researcher has to summarize what’s already gone on in the field in order to properly position her own research. When using a research article for a paper that requires primary resources, pay attention to what part of the article you are referencing. The quote you are using may actually be secondary resource material.

So, when you are considering a resource for your paper, think about how far removed it is from the original research event. Just as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is a primary resource about World War II, so is Stanley Milgram’s research article Behavioral Study of Obedience about people willing to give intense electric shocks to strangers based on an authority figure’s instructions.

Note: Primary resources are not the same as seminal articles. Seminal has to do with the importance of the research to the development of the field. Primary resources can be seminal, but they can also be totally without influence.

– Erin

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