Your professor has instructed you to get primary or secondary materials for your research project, and you are confused. If you understand the publication cycle of information, you will then understand what your professor means when she requests primary or secondary materials. Chart One of this guide defines the different stages of the cycle of information.
Chart Two lists subject heading subdivisions you may see on library catalog items, indicating the stage of publication in which the information may be located. For instance, if you see the subdivision, "personal narrative," the cataloged item is likely to be primary information. If the subdivision is "history," the item is likely to be secondary, because the information is digested and interpreted. If the subdivision is "bibliography," the item is likely to be tertiary because the information is a compilation of secondary materials.
Some key concepts are:
- Timing of the event recorded-- If the article was composed close to the time of the event recorded, chances are it is primary material. For instance, a letter written by a soldier during the Vietnam War is primary material, since it is an article written in the newspaper at the time of the Vietnam War. However, an article written about the Vietnam War in recent years would be secondary material.
- Rhetorical aim of the written item-- Often, an item that is written with a persuasive, or analytical, aim is secondary material. These materials have digested and interpreted the event with a certain detachment not characteristic of primary materials.
- Context of the researching scholar-- Primary materials used by a critic studying the literature of the Vietnam War are different from primary materials used by a research scientist studying the affects of Agent Orange syndrome. The critic's primary materials are the poems, stories, and films of the era. The research scientist's primary materials would be the medical records of those person exposed to Agent Orange.