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Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, you will learn about:
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Tertiary sources

Primary Sources: Definition

Primary sources have not been evaluated or interpreted by anyone else. They are original materials that you can evaluate on your own.

Using primary sources in your research allows you to back up your thesis statement with your own argument, because the information within primary sources has not been
affected by another person’s point of view or opinion.

Primary sources can also help you better understand the point of view of people who experienced an event or time period.

Examples of Primary Sources

Here are some examples of primary sources:

Letters, diaries or autobiographies

Photographs

Newspaper reports

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Speeches (either the transcript or audio)

Creative works like paintings, novels or plays

Data from surveys, polls and experiments

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Secondary Sources: Definition

Secondary sources interpret, critique or analyze primary sources.

Secondary sources are created when someone looks at primary sources and makes a decision about their meaning. You are doing that, too, when you use primary sources in your research paper!

Examples of Secondary Sources

Here are some examples of secondary sources:

Textbooks and biographies

Reviews or criticisms

Encyclopedias and dictionaries

Newspaper or journal articles that analyze or discuss events and ideas

Journal articles that review and analyze primary sources

Tertiary Sources: Definition

A tertiary (pronounced “ter”-“she”-“airy”) source provides a summary of primary and/or secondary sources. Tertiary sources are:

  • Often strictly factual
  • Do not include analysis or opinions
  • Not appropriate to cite in a research paper

Tertiary sources are useful for gathering background or general information on a topic in the early stages of your research project. Since they give a broad overview of
information, you should not use them as sources to directly answer your hypothesis.

Examples of Tertiary Sources

Here are some examples of tertiary sources:

Encyclopedias & Wikipedia

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Dictionaries

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Almanacs

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Textbooks

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Newspaper and Journal Articles as Primary and Secondary Sources

Newspaper articles can be both primary and secondary sources. Journal articles, too.

Newspaper and Journal Articles as Primary Sources

A newspaper article that is written close to the time of the event and includes interviews, transcripts, eyewitness accounts or raw data would be considered a primary
source.
 A journal article that is being reviewed or analyzed is also considered a primary source.

For example, an article published by The Revolution, a weekly women’s rights newspaper created and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, would be considered a primary
source.

Primary Source: Example

This political cartoon is a primary source. It is a creative work and is from the same time period that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
fought for women’s suffrage.

Newspaper Articles as Secondary Sources

A newspaper article that is published after the fact and contains analysis, critiques, or opinions about events or data would be considered a secondary source.

This newspaper article, examining the relationship and contributions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and
Frederick Douglass, which was published in 2008, would be a secondary source.

The author analyzed information from primary sources and other secondary sources to come to a conclusion about the two activists.

Secondary Source: Example

If you or someone else were to write an analysis or a commentary about that political cartoon, that piece of writing would then be a secondary source.

Are you reading a secondary source where someone else has analyzed a primary source, instead of letting the primary source speak for itself? In many cases, particularly if that person analyzing
the source is an expert, that’s not a problem. You can use that secondary source to back up your argument.