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ENG213: Writing and Research About Literature

Using Primary Sources in Literature

In literature, a “primary source” or, more specifically a “primary text,” generally means the literary work that is being read/studied/analyzed. Whenever possible, primary sources other than the author's works of literature should be consulted. An author's thoughts about his or her own work, or the thoughts of the author's contemporaries, can provide invaluable insight about the works of literature you are studying and cultural context for your argument. 

Examples of primary sources are:

  • personal and professional correspondence
  • professional papers
  • diaries and memoirs
  • manuscripts
  • political documents
  • photographs and other images
  • works of art and literature
  • artifacts
  • speeches
  • autobiographies
  • interviews and oral histories
  • newspapers and magazine articles when written at the time of an event

Types of Sources in English Research

Remember that background information, such as biographies of authors, definitions of literary terms, historical background, etc., does not qualify as scholarly secondary source material in the field of literary criticism. They may, however, give you a better understanding of the context in which the author was writing.

Key definitions for writing in the field of English/Literature:

Primary source/material - In literature this refers to the novel, short story, play/drama, poem, or other literary piece(s) being studied. These should always be cited in the bibliography, but do not count as "secondary sources."

Secondary source/material - As described above, this primarily refers to literary criticism in the field of literature. Most English professors will be looking for literary criticism in the required sources section.

Literary criticism - This is not, as the name implies, merely individuals criticizing works of literature. Rather, literary criticism is articles, books, and book chapters in which scholars in the field argue their own analyses/theses about a primary source or sources.