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How to Cite Primary Sources

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You already know that it’s critical to include a variety of sources as evidence to back up your argument or ideas. Sources of information like books, websites, and academic journals are easy to access and can help you locate pertinent information to your topic. But how do you include information from sources that provide first-hand evidence, such as maps, letters, etc.? 

These types of sources are called “primary” sources, and citing them can be a bit more challenging than citing those that are “secondary” (sources that interpret primary sources or information). However, primary sources are strong resources to use.

First, primary sources help you relate directly to the content. Instead of reading an “outsider’s” analysis of a topic or event, you can explore it for yourself through primary sources. Second, primary sources allow you to create your own opinions and analysis of a topic, without the bias of a secondary analyzer. Finally, there is less chance of miscommunication or misinformation with primary sources.

Now that you know the value of primary sources, here are some tips on how to properly include them in your next bibliography or MLA works cited.

No matter what you are citing, the key thing to remember is that the overall objective is to lead your readers directly to the sources you have consulted. Here are some of the pieces of information you should include from your primary source in order to accomplish this goal:

  1. Author or creator’s name
  2. Title of the source or a description
  3. Date the source was written/created
  4. Publication information, such as the database you accessed it from
  5. Collection name, if there is one
  6. Box and folder, if the source was housed in a place that uses such a system
  7. Repository/archive that holds the source

Here is an example for citing a letter as a primary source in MLA format:

Benton, Alice. Letter to Charles Friend. 24 Jan 1789. Charles Friend Collection, State University Library, New York, MS 511, box 15, folder 9.

And here is how you would cite the same letter in APA format:

Benton, A. (1789, October 24). Letter to Charles Friend. Charles Friend Collection (MS 511, Box 15, Folder 9). State University Archives, New York.

If you are unsure about how to cite a primary source for your paper, talk to your instructor or consult the manual for your citation style. BibMe.org also has helpful citation forms for many types of primary sources like interviews, photography, maps, federal bills, and more! 

Preparing to write a paper? Why review BibMe grammar guides and brush up on how to use an adverb, what is plagiarism, how to define “conjunction,” and more!

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What is the difference between a primary source and secondary source?

The difference between a primary and secondary source is based on how raw or pure the source is. A primary source provides firsthand information that was experienced by the source’s creator.

Primary sources examples:

  • data from a science experiment
  • an interview
  • a recording of an event
  • maps survey results
  • historical artifacts

A secondary source is a source that describes or analyzes a primary source. The creator of a secondary source experiences the information secondhand through the primary source, so it is labeled as “secondary.”

Secondary sources examples:

  • journal articles
  • book reviews
  • textbooks
  • art critiques
  • biographies

Examples of a primary and secondary source on the same information:

  • Primary source –> Video of a performance
  • Secondary source –> Review of the performance


  • Primary source –> Quantitative and qualitative data from a survey
  • Secondary source –> Article interpreting what the results mean


What are the elements to keep in mind when formatting a primary source?

Primary sources are original sources of information that provide first-hand evidence on a topic. While gathering data from a primary source, the following elements are necessary to include in references and citations:

  1. Author’s or content contributor’s full name
  2. Title of the content source and/or description where available
  3. Date when the content was created
  4. Information about the source of publication, such as a database
  5. Name of the collection, if available
  6. Box or folder name, if available
  7. Any other information that would be necessary to identify that source