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The other day, a friend was complaining that their blog posts weren’t getting the level of attention they wanted. As I learned more about their content, I began to see why they might struggle to stand out from the crowd. They only seemed to use secondary sources while leaving primary sources untouched. I think there are a lot of content creators like my friend. They know research is important, but they don’t understand the importance of using a balanced array of sources. In this post, I’ll be talking about primary sources and how they can help you produce better, more authoritative content.

What are primary sources?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that research is a great way to make your content stand out. Primary sources provide first-hand accounts of an event or a topic. They’re distinct from secondary sources, which often seek to explain or interpret primary sources. A book on agriculture written by an ancient Roman would be a primary source, whereas a book about Roman agriculture written by a 21st-century scholar would be a secondary source. 

Why are primary sources important?

Primary sources are uniquely valuable because they were created by people who actually experienced what they’re writing about. They provide a unique perspective that can add both depth and life to your work. Let’s say you’re writing about life at the royal court in Tudor England. You could simply tell your readers that the kings and queens of that period were perpetually on display. But you could also mention that Giovanni Michieli, Venice’s ambassador to England, actually went so far as to discuss Queen Mary I’s menstrual problems in a 1557 report to the Doge and Senate

An anecdote like that adds a human element to the story. Even if someone has embraced the social-media fueled panopticon that is 21st-century life, they’re likely going to be taken aback by Michieli’s casual discussion of Mary’s gynecological problems. Chances are, it’s going to stick in your readers’ mind far more than a bland excursion through the secondary literature. 

What are some of the problems with primary sources?

Like all sources, primary sources have their pitfalls. There can be a temptation to assume that, because someone has firsthand experience of something, their account must be perfectly credible. But humans are a complex constellation of biases that shape our perceptions of the world around us. Even the most honest among us lie about something, even if it’s only to ourselves. 

Always approach a primary source with a critical eye. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Who created this?
  • Why did they create it?
  • What’s the wider context?

For more advice on vetting sources, check out “How to fact-check online information” and “5 steps to verify social media source accuracy for publishers”. 

Ignore primary sources at your peril

Because primary sources can be harder to find than secondary sources, it can be tempting to ignore them in favor of easier pickings. But if all you’re doing is repackaging other people’s insights, your content is probably going to feel derivative. You might even end up propagating misinformation. 

When the cRPG Baldur’s Gate III first came out, many online guides said that players should hang onto the various metal ingots they found since they could be used later on in the game to upgrade equipment. There’s just one problem: there is no late-game workbench in BG3. The ingots’ only purpose is to be sold to vendors for a bit of quick gold. 

I suspect that this error arose because, while the first part of BG3 had been available in early access for years, the later portions of the game were only revealed upon the game’s final release. That put creators in a bit of a bind. BG3 was a hotly anticipated title, but it also has a massive amount of material. In a bid to get their content out as soon as possible, some creators may have made educated guesses about the latter parts of the game rather than waiting to experience it firsthand. Given that there are ingots in the early part of the game and given that Larian Studio’s other big cRPG, Divinity Original Sin II, does have an upgrade system, it was logical to assume there might be something similar in BG3. But in their haste, they ended up sowing the seeds of misinformation.

Even though the full game has been out for several months now, I still see misinformation about the presence of a workbench crop up from time to time. But it just goes to show that primary sources can make all the difference in the world. Actually playing the game would’ve made it clear that there is no workbench, but problems start to creep in when creators rely solely on secondary sources. Remember, you want your content to be useful to your audience. If you’re giving them misinformation, you’re not helping them.

Primary sources show your expertise

Since primary sources are often harder to find and interpret than secondary sources, using them reinforces the idea that you’re serious about making a meaningful contribution to your field. They also help Google understand that you possess expertise. This is particularly important given that expertise is one of the criteria that their search raters use to assess a site. By bolstering your claim to expertise, you’re more likely to improve your ranking in Google’s search results. 

The bottom line

Primary sources are the keystone of authoritative content. They’re created by people with firsthand knowledge of something, and they provide unique perspectives that you can’t find anywhere else. But like any source, they aren’t infallible and need to be properly scrutinized. But the upside is that they can make your content come alive by adding details that stick in your readers’ minds. Primary sources can also help you stand out from the creators who take the path of least resistance and limit themselves to easily accessible secondary sources. Finally, they can help you demonstrate your expertise to Google. In short, using primary sources can be a win for everyone. 

To learn more about primary sources, check out:

this guide from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or this one from Kansas State University. This database from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville includes some helpful collections of primary sources.