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Primary Sources

Why types of sources are important?

It is important to know whether a source is Primary, Secondary or Tertiary

Primary sources will normally be the point of view of a person there at that time for whatever occasion.

Secondary sources are normally reading Primary sources and other Secondary sources and have been analyzed by the author.

Tertiary sources often take the main accepted points from Secondary sources and list or summarize the ideas.

As a student you may be called upon to look at different types of sources for different types of papers, reports or projects.
Keep in mind every time you use a source what kind of source it is, it may help you when considering accuracy, bias, and the reason it was written.

Primary Sources vs Secondary Sources

What are Primary sources?
Primary sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it.
Primary sources can include:

  • Texts of laws and other original documents.
  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.
  • Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.
  • Original research.
  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.
  • Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.


What are Secondary sources?
Secondary sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis.
Secondary sources can include:

  • Most books about a topic.
  • Analysis or interpretation of data.
  • Scholarly or other articles about a topic, especially by people not directly involved.
  • Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).


When is a Primary source a Secondary source?

Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use.
A biology textbook would be considered a secondary source if in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science but makes no original contribution to it.
On the other hand, if the topic is science education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.
(The above information is taken from Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston)


Is a translated Primary source document still a Primary source?
A primary source that had been translated is still considered as a primary source, but the translation must be taken into account.



Discipline Primary Source
Secondary Source
  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Diaries
  • Manuscripts
  • Official documents
    and records
  • Interviews
  • Items
  • History Books
  • Journal Articles
  • Documentaries
Art & Literature
  • Novels
  • Paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Poems
  • Art criticism articles
  • Book reviews
  • Art history book
  • Exhibition catalog
    explaining the painting
Communication & Journalism
  • Speeches
  • Investigative
  • Newspapers &
  • Journal articles on
    communication theories
  • Book on Journalism practices
  • Public speaking manual
Law and Politics
  • Laws
  • Court documents
  • Public opinion surveys
  • Law reviews
  • American government textbook
  • Encyclopedia of political theory
Science and Social Science
  • Research Studies
  • Surveys
  • Statistical data
  • Reviews of other studies
  • Systematic reviews
  • Textbook


Credit to

Tertiary Sources

What are Tertiary sources?
Tertiary sources index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources. 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.

Tertiary sources can include:

  • Dictionaries/encyclopedias (may also be secondary)
  • Almanacs
  • Fact books
  • Directories
  • Guidebooks
  • Manuals
  • Handbooks
  • Textbooks (may be secondary)
  • Indexing and abstracting sources.

(Adapted from University of Minnesota Crookston)