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Identifying Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

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Primary sources include:

Accounts by an eyewitness or the first recorder of an event, in written or other form, including microform and electronic reproduction. Examples are diaries, autobiographies, letters, minutes of meetings, news footage, newspaper articles.

Data obtained through original research, statistical compilations or legal requirements. Examples are reports of scientific experiments, U. S. census records, public records.

Creative works such as poetry, music, or art

Artifacts such as arrowheads, pottery, furniture, and buildings.

Secondary sources are works that interpret the primary data, such as a book about eating disorders, a journal article about the role of tobacco in the colonial economy, or a critical review of a play.

Tertiary sources are works that compile, analyze, and digest secondary sources. General
and specialized encyclopedias are familiar examples of tertiary sources.






Sources that contain raw, original, uninterpreted and unevaluated information.

Sources that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret the information contained within primary sources. They tend to be argumentative.

Sources that compile, analyze, and digest secondary sources. They tend to be factual.


Primary sources tend to come first in the publication cycle.

Secondary sources tend to come second in the publication cycle.

Tertiary sources tend to come last in the publication cycle.

FORMATS--depends on the kind of analysis being conducted.

Often newspapers, weekly and monthly-produced magazines; letters, diaries.

Often scholarly periodicals and books. (Professors like these.)

Often reference books.

EXAMPLE: Historian studying the Vietnam War)

Newspaper articles, weekly news magazines, monthly magazines, diaries, correspondence, diplomatic records.

Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war.

Historical Dictionary of Vietnam;

Example: Literary Critic(studying the literature of the Vietnam War)

Novels, poems, plays, diaries, correspondence.

Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers of the war.

Writing About Vietnam; A Bibliography of the Literature of the Vietnam Conflict; Dictionary of Literary Biography

Example: Psychologist(studying the effects of the Vietnam syndrome)

Article in a magazine that reports research and its methodology; notes taken by a clinical psychologist.

Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology

Example: Scientist(studying Agent Orange exposure)

Article in a magazine reporting research and methodology.

Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books doing same.

Agent Orange and Vietnam: An Annotated Bibliography

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Updated January 2009