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SSI1-170: Space, Place, and Values

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Resources

Primary Sources

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.

Examples include:

  • Eyewitness reports (photographs, interviews, newspaper articles)
  • Memoirs, diaries, oral histories, correspondence
  • Literary work (novels, plays, poems)
  • Creative works such as feature films, musical works, dances, play performances
  • Artwork
  • Clinical trials
  • Testimony (such as Congressional hearings)
  • Documentary films (when comprised entirely of first-person narratives OR if being used to study filmmaking techniques)
  • Data, statistics, census reports
  • Speeches
  • Social Media: Tweets, texts, status updates, original blogs

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. 

Questions to Ask When Determining If Something Is a Primary Source:

  • Did the author conduct original research on the topic?
  • Is the information the result of a survey?
  • Is the information uninterpreted data or statistics?
  • Is the source an original document or a creative work?
  • Did the information come from personal experience?


Secondary Sources

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:

  • Nonfiction books, including biographies and textbooks
  • Magazine articles
  • Journal articles
  • Reviews, criticism, meta-analyses
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Newspaper or magazine articles
  • Documentary films (when researching the topic of the film)
  • Commentaries
  • Dictionaries
  • An article or website that synthesizes a number of sources for a new understanding of an event
  • Social Media: Pins on Pinterest, re-tweets, shared posts or links to other content

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.

Questions to Ask When Determining If Something Is a Secondary Source:

  • Did the author consult multiple sources to create this work?
  • Is this information an interpretation or paraphrasing of another author's work?
  • Did the information come from second-hand reporting?
  • Is the source a textbook, review, or commentary?
  • Does the source include quotations or images?


Tertiary Sources

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:

  • Almanacs
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical and subject dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
  • Factbooks
  • Guide books
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources
  • Manuals
  • Textbooks (when their purpose is to list, summarize, or repackage ideas and information)

Questions to Ask When Determining If Something Is a Tertiary Source:

  • Did the author consult multiple sources to create this work?
  • Is the source an abbreviated summary of multiple sources?
  • Is the source a list used to locate other, more detailed information?


Adapted from PALNI Information Literacy Modules