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History Seminar Research Paper Guide: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is useful to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.

Source Type Examples                

Primary
A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event.

This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else

First person account of an event

First publication of a scientific study

Speech or lecture

Original artwork

Handwritten manuscript

Letters between two people

A diary

Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights

Secondary
A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.

Newspaper reporting on a scientific study

Review of a music CD or art show

Biography

Tertiary
A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.

A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source. Bibliography

Index to articles

Library catalog

 

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Primary, secondary and tertiary sources

Sources can be divided into three types, depending on their proximity to the subject of study:

Primary sources

A primary source is usually a document or result that is being reported first hand. In other words, primary sources are original sources, not interpretations made by someone else.

The following often function as primary sources:

  • works of fiction
  • diaries
  • interviews
  • official documents, such as census data and legal texts
  • objects, such as archaeological findings
  • numeric data
  • corpora

Secondary sources

Secondary sources value, discuss or comment on the primary source, or on sources analogous to the primary source that is being analysed.

The following are examples of such secondary sources:

  • research articles
  • biographies
  • monographs

Tertiary sources

A tertiary source is a source that summarises or compiles facts and knowledge produced by someone else. Tertiary sources are often some kind of assemblage of primary and secondary sources. They are convenient for quick access to summarised facts, but not all sources that belong to this category are considered suitable for scholarly writing. For instance, it is usually not acceptable to use compilations of facts instead of reading the original sources. Therefore, students writing essays are recommended to consult their teachers on the suitability of using tertiary sources in their writing.

Sources that would be regarded as tertiary sources include:

  • textbooks
  • study guides
  • encyclopaedias and wikis
  • indexes and other classification systems

A note of caution

It should be noted that the distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources is not a fixed one. For instance, in an analysis of an encyclopaedic article, that text would be regarded as a primary source, and in a review of a scholarly monograph, the text under scrutiny would be seen as a primary source, although it would be used as secondary source material under other circumstances.