What will you learn?
On this page you will learn the differences between primary (original documents) and secondary and tertiary sources.
Watch the short videos and read the content to make sure you recognise primary, secondary and tertiary resources.
Primary sources contain information which is original, and can often be the most up-to-date information available. Primary sources will be written or produced by people who were directly involved in the research or events being presented and described in those sources.
Primary sources are records that provide first-hand testimony or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period. Primary sources are usually created by individuals that directly experience an event or topic, and record their experience through photographs, videos, memoirs, correspondence, oral histories, or autobiographies.
Primary sources include:
- Research reports
- Unpublished lab notes
- Journal articles (specific types - original research)
- Company information
- Parliamentary debates and papers
- Websites, discussion forums and lists
- Audio recordings
- Conference papers
- Statistical data
- Bills, Acts and Explanatory Memoranda
- Letters, diaries, memories and autobiographies
- Historical manuscripts
Later sources (termed secondary or tertiary sources) add layers of interpretation which separate you from the actual event. Primary sources come in two forms: published and unpublished materials. Published editions can usually be found using library catalogues, but specialised finding aids may be required to locate unpublished works.
Secondary literature is the mass of published materials that interpret, evaluate, or analyse the evidence derived from primary sources. Secondary sources provide a factual context or interpretative framework for your analysis.
Secondary resources take a wide range of forms:
- academic books.
- journal articles.
- annotations or commentaries on primary sources.
- magazine articles.
Tertiary resources summarise, abstract or index the information derived from primary or secondary sources. These sources can assist you to find background information on your topic (such as definitions, names and dates) or take you to relevant books and general articles.
Theses sources include:
- review articles.
Is it, or isn't it?
Figuring out whether something is a primary or secondary source can be tricky. Sometimes it's not clear cut. For more tips on what to look for, visit this helpful website from Yale University.
Choosing primary and secondary sources
JSTOR: Primary and secondary sources
This video (4.25 mins) created by JSTOR provides a broad definitions for primary and secondary sources that will help you use the JSTOR database effectively.
JSTOR Primary and Secondary Sources by JSTOR support