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Politics & International Relations

Primary Research

What is Primary Research?

Primary research is defined as the collation and analysis of original data that has not been gathered before. This differs from secondary research that is considered as the result of the study of research and sources which has been subject to academic enquiry. A more detailed explanation of the distinction between these fields of research is below:

“Primary research generally refers to research that has involved the collection of original data specific to that particular research project, for example through using research methods such as questionnaires or interviews. Secondary research refers to research where no such original data is collected, but the research project uses existing (or secondary) sources of data … Most research projects will contain an element of secondary research in establishing and evaluating the types of data that have been collected in previous projects in the area as part of the literature review.” (Gratton and Jones, 2010, p.8).

Carrying out primary research may be a requisite for your assessment. For postgraduates and researchers, it is a keystone of their work. Many students relish getting to grips with raw data, handling unread primary sources and making an original contribution to academic knowledge. Studying and analysing primary sources heighten critical thinking abilities and empowers independent learning.    

Secondary Literature Search

Before carrying out any form of primary research it is vital to understand and appreciate the nature of your enquiry by carrying out a thorough review of the secondary literature in order to:

  • inform and direct primary research more effectively
  • use both primary and secondary sources in your writing to demonstrate command of your subject, theories and terminology
  • broaden and deepen your knowledge and appreciation of the research field
  • demonstrate where your research sits within existing work
  • signpost areas of research requiring further inquiry, gaps in knowledge, potential counter arguments to develop, alternative research methodologies, and raw data or archival sources for revaluating
  • undertake 'citation surfing' - follow up references and bibliographies of secondary sources to record the location and reference of primary sources used in the analysis in addition to identify additional secondary sources to read - see our support guide for finding more research here

Extensive advice and guidance for carrying out a literature search if available here 

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are 'the basic raw material for study' (Mabbett, 2007, p. 34) and may be defined as ‘sources which came into existence within the period being instigated’ (Marwick, 2001, p. 26). This could be 1.000 years ago, or the present day, so could include medieval manuscripts for a historian, the results of laboratory tests for a health researcher or for the social scientist, focus groups and surveys. This ‘raw material’ then forms the basis of their studies.

There is an immense variety what can be considered as primary sources, as the examples below indicate. These can vary depending upon the discipline or context.

  • Personal sources – diaries, correspondence, personal journals and papers, autobiographies and memoirs, speeches
  • Surveys and reports – royal commissions, tax inspections, questionnaires
  • ‘Official’ records – minutes, annual reports, accounts, church records, government records laws, parliamentary papers, parish registers, business records, census returns, birth certificates, patents
  • Media – newspapers, cartoons, films, video recordings, advertisements, speeches
  • Artistic sources – works of fiction, plays, poetry, sculpture, music, works of art, photographs
  • Material culture and artefacts – coins, clothes, architectures, archaeological finds, furniture
  • Oral recordings – interviews, recorded records, ‘oral history’, speeches, radio programmes, focus groups
  • Geographical records – place names, maps, satellite images
  • Observations – recording observed behaviour and occurrences

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are also overlaps with secondary sources, for example, historiography written in the nineteenth century might now be considered a primary source as it tells us much about the mindset and belief of a nineteenth century individual.

Interpreting Primary Sources

Primary sources allow us to make connections to our own ideas and develop individual interpretations. When assessing a primary source, it is important to be remain critical of the source, retain an open mind and consider its intended audience. Being critical is a key academic skill, we've lots of help and information here

When assessing a primary source, ask yourself the question, where and when and why is who is saying what to whom? Primary sources are, in the most part, subjective and remain an individual’s interpretation of an event or activity. Primary sources may

  • not always be truly accurate.
  • have been produced with an intended audience in mind. Newspapers produce content for ‘their’ readers.
  • have been created for profit or commission and therefore be subject to what the customer wants rather than a true representation. A piece of artwork may be subject to ‘artistic licence’.
  • have been written to remain private – a diary or personal papers. Anne Frank’s diary was not intended to be read by a global audience or presented as an account of the Holocaust. 
  • be fake. Even the most distinguished scholars have been fooled. In the 1980s, sixty volumes of (forged) journals purportedly written by Adolf Hitler were initially declared genuine by the respected historian Hugh-Trevor Roper (Steers and Nickell, 2013). That said, the fake diaries are themselves now considered primary sources as ‘news media’ documents of the past.

Digital or Original?

To access primary sources, previous generations of scholars would have trawled archives and libraries to examine documents. This ‘hands on’ approach is still recommended but can now be complemented with the vast number of primary sources available through online databases, which has its advantages: 

  • Searchable, saveable, and printable sources from your desktop
  • Savings of time and expenses
  • Preservation of original documents
  • May be easier to read
  • Easier to create statistical data

As with ‘original’ sources, it is important to bear in mind the subjectivity of the source, but also evaluate the digital platforms and the providence of the source – can the original be located? There are also additional caveats when using digital sources:

  • The search strategy requires careful planning of keywords and dates
  • Manging results through saving
  • The context of the source may be lost. For example, other documents within the collection or publication may be overlooked if the search terms are too narrow.

Databases of Digitised Primary Sources available from Teesside University Library

The Library subscribes to a wide range of databases that offer a vast range of digitised primary sources. These include historic newspaper and periodical titles including The Times, art and architecture archives, full text digital versions of British and European books, tracts and pamphlets from the medieval age to the nineteenth century, British cartoons spanning 200 years, historic maps, images from the British Museum, and state and parliamentary papers.

We also provide digital access to a range of more specialist primary sources, these include news videos from Northern Ireland, Church of England records, women’s letters and diaries, radio and television archives, collections of notable individual’s own archives, trial accounts from the Old Bailey criminal court and much more.

To more information, including accessibility, of our digitised primary sources, go to Finding Digital Media, Newspapers, Official Documents & Statistics

Ethics and Privacy

Using primary source material brings with it responsibility and the question of ethics and research integrity. If you are embarking on a dissertation project, an ethics form may be a requirement of this exercise. You should also consult your tutor or academic school with regards to the University's ethics and integrity assurance if you are in any doubt. 

Permission to use primary sources does not mean you have permission to use them in your work.

  • You must have explicit consent to consult primary data and to then use it for academic purposes. This is especially important if it is of a ‘sensitive’ nature, for example, surveys, commercial and medical data, interviews and family records.
  • Permission must be received from the people you will be studying in order to conduct research involving them.
  • Consider whether it might be appropriate to anonymise your findings and consult those involved in your study.
  • Be sensitive to others and carefully word interview or survey questions.


It is important to obtain authorisation and adhere to any copyright regulations when using primary sources, especially regarding copying documents, images, and data for both initial research consultation and then reproduction in written work. Archives and libraries will advise on this, as will the terms and conditions of digital databases. We also offer copyright guidance. 

Referencing Primary Sources

All primary sources used in academic writing must be fully referenced to ensure their veracity, to allow a reader to easily differentiate between primary and secondary sources in the writing and for others to locate source materials easily. If you read about a primary source in a secondary source and wish to use it, you should try to locate the primary source to check the context and data. To reference a primary source, follow the referencing guidelines for your subject area.  Referencing primary sources can be tricky, especially if they are archival resources, if you need help, the Learning Hub is here for you.


Primary source historical documents and records are collated and stored in archives, where they may be accessed for research purposes. The range of archival resources vary immensely and can include just a specific set of documents or a vast range of records. The National Archives, the official archive for the UK Government, stores over 11million government and public records, that include Domesday Book to tweets from Downing Street.

Visiting archives

Before visiting

  • check the online catalogue – some resources may not be available if they are too fragile, for example
  • confirm if resources require pre-ordering and an appointment is required
  • find out If a visitor’s pass is needed. The British Library, for example, require researchers to apply for a Reader Pass
  • check online databases for digital formats, for example, nineteenth-century periodicals via our 19th Century UK Periodicals database
  • confirm arrangements for copying records. Some sites allow digital cameras and photocopying, others, such as the British Library, require researchers to order copies for a small charge.

When you research in an archive, please respect their procedures for researchers. Many sites request users only use pencils for note-making and that bags, coats and drinks are not taken into study rooms.

Notable archives and record offices

Teesside Archives – located in the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough. Historical records of Middlesbrough and surrounding areas

North Yorkshire County Record Office – historic records of North Yorkshire

Durham County Record Office - local authority archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Many more local and national archives can be located using the National Archives discovery search tool

Useful Resources

Click on the image below to access the reading list which includes resources used in this guide as well as some additional useful resources.

Link to online reading list of additional resources and further reading

Using material on this page