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Primary and Secondary Sources of Information: Primary and Secondary Information

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Instructors will sometimes ask you to use primary sources of information for your research paper as well as some secondary resources.

What's the difference?

Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time of the subject being researched. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.

Some types of primary sources include:

  • Original documents (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • Creative Works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • Relics or Artifacts: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources include:

  • The Diary of a Young Girl (a.k.a. The Diary of Anne Frank) - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII 
  • The Declaration of Independence - U.S. History
  • A journal article reporting new research or findings 
  • Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece
  • Legal Cases

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.

Some types of secondary sources include:

  • Journal articles
  • Law reviews
  • Textbooks
  • magazine articles
  • histories
  • criticisms
  • commentaries
  • encyclopedias

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about the effects of WWI 

Examples of where to find secondary sources include JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, Google Scholar, your local public library or college library, magazines such as Time or Life, and newspaper databases like the New York Times, The Charlotte (NC) Observer, or the Washington Post (i.e. book reviews, commentaries).

Sources Cited in This Guide

“Primary vs. Secondary Sources.” New Jersey’s Science and Technology University. New Jersey Institute of Technology. n.d. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.1
Engle, M. “A Quick Guide: Tertiary Sources.” Cornell University Library. Cornell University. 15 Jul 2022. Web. 12 Jan 2023.2
“Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources.” University of Minnesota-Crookston Library. University of Minnesota-Crookston. n.d. Web. 12 Jan 2023.3

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Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are publications that summarize and digest the information in primary and secondary sources to provide background on a topic, idea, or event. Encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries are good examples of tertiary sources.2

Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Tertiary sources are usually not credited to a particular author.

Examples of Tertiary Sources:
Dictionaries/encyclopedias (may also be secondary), almanacs, fact books, Wikipedia, bibliographies (may also be secondary), directories, guidebooks, manuals, handbooks, and textbooks (may be secondary), indexing and abstracting sources.3

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