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:
See below for further examples, or consult your subject librarian for help.
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.
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.
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.
Examples across the disciplines
|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.
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?
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 in determining the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources? Speak with a library subject specialist.