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English Department Library Resources

This is a list of library resources designed for inclusion into English Department Canvas courses.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

As you conduct research, you will consult different sources of information. A professor may request that you use primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. What does that mean?

The types of information that can be considered primary sources will vary depending on the subject discipline and how you are using the material. Generally speaking a "primary" source is one that is closest to the original source material, a "secondary" source has an additional layer of interpretation between it and the original source material, and a "tertiary" source is further removed by distilling and/or collecting other primary and secondary sources. For example:

  • A research article or a study linking the reduction of energy consumption to the compact fluorescent light bulb would be a primary source, because it is directly reporting on the original experiment. 
  • A magazine article reporting on recent energy saving studies that mentions the results of the research article would be a secondary source, because it is interpreting the original research article for a different audience.
  • However, if you were studying how fluorescent light bulbs are presented in the popular media, the magazine article could be considered a primary source, because it is a direct example of the phenomenon you're studying.

See below for further examples, or consult your subject librarian for help.

Primary sources

Primary sources are original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. They are usually the first formal appearance of results in physical, print or electronic format. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.

Note: The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

Examples include:

  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study)
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
  • Letters
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document)
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)
  • Video recordings (e.g. television programs)
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems)
  • Website* (if it is close to the original source, like a blog if you're studying public opinion)

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are less easily defined than primary sources. Generally, they are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence. However, what some define as a secondary source, others define as a tertiary source. Context is everything.

Note: The definition of a secondary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

Examples include:

  • Bibliographies (can also be considered tertiary)
  • Biographical works
  • Commentaries, criticisms
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (can also be considered tertiary)
  • Histories
  • Journal articles (depending on the disciple can be primary)
  • Magazine and newspaper articles (this distinction varies by discipline)
  • Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography
  • Textbooks (can also be considered tertiary)
  • Website* (can also be considered primary)

Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.

Note: The definition of a tertiary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

  • Almanacs
  • Bibliographies (can also be considered secondary)
  • Chronologies
  • Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (can also be considered secondary)
  • Directories
  • Fact books
  • Guidebooks
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources
  • Manuals
  • Textbooks (can also be considered secondary)

Examples across the disciplines

Subject Primary Secondary Tertiary
Art Painting by Manet Article critiquing art piece ArtStor database
Chemistry/Life Sciences Results of experiment (journal article or dataset) Review article on a research area Handbook of physical/chemical properties
Engineering/Physical Sciences Patent Press release about invention Manual on using invention
Humanities Letters by Martin Luther King Web site on King's writings Encyclopedia on Civil Rights Movement
Social Sciences Notes taken by clinical psychologist Magazine article about the psychological condition Textbook on clinical psychology
Performing Arts Movie filmed in 1942 Biography of the director Guide to the movie

*Special note about websites

Remember, a primary source is one that's closest to the original source material, a secondary source has an additional layer of interpretation between it and the original source, and a tertiary source distills and collects other primary and secondary sources. This can get a little confusing when you're talking about websites. Keep in mind what you're trying to study.

  • A blog by someone directly involved in the Arab Spring uprisings would be considered a primary source for studying that event, because it is an eyewitness account of the event. 
  • A website for a university course on recent history that outlines the events in the Arab Spring could be a secondary source, because it interprets and discusses the eyewitness accounts. 
  • A wikipedia entry about the Arab Spring could be a tertiary source, because it might be a collection and overview of relevant eyewitness blogs and interpretive articles.

Suppose you're studying the civil rights movement, and you find a website that contains oral history recordings gathered at the time of the movement. What kind of source is this?

  • The oral histories themselves would be primary sources, because they are from the time of the civil rights movement and contain contemporary accounts of the events.
  • The website, however, is not a primary source, because it is not from the same time. It could be a secondary or tertiary source, because it is providing an extra layer of interpretation or distillation between the oral histories and the researcher.

Searching WorldCat UMD

You can search WorldCat UMD to find primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Here are some sample word/s anywhere searches in WorldCat UMD:

Primary diaries world war
Secondary biography world war
Tertiary encyclopedia world war

Need help?

Need help in determining the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources? Speak with a library subject specialist.