Resources used in academic research generally fall into one of two categories: primary and secondary sources. The difference between them is the reference point of the source’s creator.
Primary sources are works created by a person or persons involved in an event or are published in newspapers, journals, or other media contemporaneous with the event. Thus, they are first-hand (or primary) accounts of the event and they provide first-hand evidence of what happened. Another way to think of primary sources is as “original,” “uninterpreted” sources which provide an original perspective on an event. Please note that primary sources can come in many formats – they can be published or unpublished, a printed text or a text that has been digitized, an artifact, a recording, a painting or an image. They can also be reprinted or issued for publication or made accessible to the public long after their creation. For example, government documents may be classified for many years before these primary sources can be used by researchers. Oral histories may be recorded many years after the events about which the person is being interviewed took place. Because of this, primary sources can be found in all sections of the library. They are published in books that are in the circulating stacks. They constitute articles in newspapers that are held in electronic databases and on microfilm. They are manuscripts and legal treatises found in Special Collections. They are digital images found on the internet and in digital library depositories.
Secondary sources are more critical analyses of events. They are created by a person or persons who has/have the necessary distance in time and involvement from the event, movement, battle, etc. to write a less personal account. Secondary sources build upon and interpret primary sources, as well as secondary sources created by others. Thus, secondary sources are second-hand accounts because their creators are one-position removed from first-hand accounts.
The National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It provides the most comprehensive collection available of significant primary documents central to US foreign and military policy since 1945. FSU also subscribes to its database, the Digital National Security Archive.