Ambiguities that need to be considered: primary and secondary sources


Duck or Rabbit?

At my “Information and Literature” searching class last night, we looked at the mind maps (outlining concepts and keywords) which the MPhil/PhD students had worked on as part of their pre-search homework.  These were created so that the students could visualise their research question and gather in one place the subject terms, keywords, concepts, theories, theorists, and even their searches. One example of a work in progress is this wonderfully complex map created by one of the students – see:    But one thing led to another … for after the discussion, I asked the students what primary sources they were intending to use.  The students were puzzled when I explained that if they are generating qualitative or quantitative data, that would be considered a primary source but so could other types of sources.

This caused a little bit of confusion so I thought I would take the opportunity to clarify definitions and give some examples on this post. My question was also an opportunity for me to highlight the findings from the Researchers of Tomorrow, JISC-British Library sponsored, 3-year study involving some 17,000 doctoral students from 70 U.K. universities.  This study found that doctoral students’ continued reliance on secondary sources was lowering the quality of PhD output in the U.K. and many PhD students were simply regurgitating existing secondary literature.  By way of explanation, it is perhaps important to provide an explanation here:  A lot of original work involves looking freshly at secondary sources. I could, for example offer a major critique of an existing secondary source such as a philosophical work and I would be creating new knowledge. However the study’s conclusion is a worrying and I believe definitions of primary and secondary source material are somewhat more fluid than at first glance, and we need to adopt some caution.  Let me explain:

Primary and Secondary Resources


Girl or Woman? 

Generally speaking, primary sources include diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, pamphlets, news film footage, autobiographies/personal narratives, official government records, blog posts, and data for example.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, generally substantiate or build on primary sources and include textbooks, journal and magazine articles, histories, criticisms and commentaries.

However, a secondary source (as described in the definition above) can sometimes become a primary source if the document has been written or created during the time of study. For example, a textbook could be used as primary source material if we are going to use it as evidence of pedagogy  for a particular period.  Another example which we discussed in class was Jerome Bruner and the relationship of his theories to art education.  I gave the example of two of Bruner’s books,  The Process of Education (1960) and Towards a Theory of Instruction(1966) which both outline his theories on the circular curriculum. These theories made an impact on the development of curriculum in the 1960s as is evidenced in the MACOS Curriculum Project (held in the Special Collections).  Therefore research on the curricula of the 1960s would mean that these  two texts would now be considered primary source material, as would the actual curriculum resources generated from the application of Bruner’s theories. However, articles about Bruner, his theories and the MACOS project would be considered secondary sources. Thus, as can be seen from these two examples above, primary or secondary designation is almost entirely based on a context and purpose.

What’s in a title?

Another issue that came up in the previous week followed a group exercise which required students to construct search strategies using appropriate keywords from a series of theses titles.  After the exercise, I told the class that the examples provided were actual theses titles which had been submitted. This surprised the students as the titles were vague but it enabled me to illustrate the importance of having a searchable thesis title in order to ensure that it is findable so as to increase the possibility of the thesis being cited thus making an impact on scholarship.  On a less serious note,  I must share with you this collection of humorous titles – see:

It is interesting how unpredictable learning can be when learning that takes place within a teaching context can be as one thing leads to another.  Of course, this is not entirely due to chance but to the outcome of the conscious stimulus embodied in teaching.

Nazlin Bhimani

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Research Support, Special Collections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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