Primary sources are the raw materials of research. They provide firsthand access to words, images, or objects created directly by the persons involved in the activity or event. The value of primary sources is that they allow the researcher to get as close as possible to the original work. It is important to note that the types of information that can be considered primary sources may vary depending on the subject discipline, and also on how you are using the material. Time is also a defining element.
Primary sources often enable the researcher to experience the flavor of the original event or information, rather than relying upon someone else’s interpretation. Keep in mind that primary sources, because of their first-hand nature, may not be completely well-reasoned, objective, or accurate.
Secondary sources are those sources that provide more developed information on primary sources. They gather, analyze, interpret, or repackage information from primary sources and/or other secondary sources. The information comes to us secondhand. Authors of secondary sources did not directly participate in the composing of the primary source, but they can be experts regarding the primary source.
Examples of secondary sources include:
Secondary sources can provide valuable interpretation or historical context, provided the sources are trustworthy. They are important to researchers as they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources.
Sometimes secondary sources can be used as primary sources. For example, a textbook is typically a secondary source if you are relying on it for the information it contains. However, if you are reviewing textbooks and how the content in them is curated, then the textbooks you use become primary sources. So, if you are using a second source for its content, then it is a secondary source, but if you are using the source for how it is created, then it is a primary source. This rule applies to tertiary sources (see below) being used as primary sources, too.
Tertiary sources typically provide a summary or overview of information found in primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources provide overviews of topics by compiling and synthesizing information gathered from other resources. Tertiary sources are typically most beneficial as you start to do research to simply learn more about your topic. They will often list the primary and secondary sources used to create the summary in a reference section. These references are often better sources of information for your research than the tertiary source itself. Examples of tertiary sources include:
Adapted from PALNI Information Literacy Modules https://libguides.palni.edu/instruction_resources/ILModule5