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Library Research Tutorial

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary sources

This is the difference between a source written BY someone versus one written ABOUT something that someone else wrote.

  • Primary Sources are created by someone first hand
  • Secondary Sources are written about something that someone else created

Primary Sources

A primary source is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. 

One way to think of a primary source is it's the creator's original ideas, thoughts, or observations. They can be:

  • Raw, unedited, unpublished - such as, a diary, personal letters, or data set
  • Published - such as, an article in an academic/scholarly journal or book

For most research articles, you'll find all of these elements as headings and subheadings:

  • Method -  explains how the research was designed and carried out; identifies the population studied; explains how the data was collected 
  • Results - gives an analysis of the data
  • Discussion – includes limitations of the research (what went right and what went wrong)
  • Conclusion - explains how the research was either conclusive or inconclusive and what might be the next step
  • References –gives credit to the other scholars in the "conversation" and is a potential gold mine of more articles on this topic for your reader

As you progress in your studies, you'll be using primary sources more and more for research papers in your upper-level classes. The definition shifts a bit between the disciplines and can include such things as:

Social Sciences and Health Sciences 

  • Pilot/prospective studies
  • Cohort studies
  • Survey research
  • Case studies
  • Lab notebooks, field reports
  • Clinical trials 
  • Dissertations and conference papers

Fine Arts

  • a novel or play
  • a painting, photograph, or sculpture


  • diaries, letters
  • newspaper articles (from the period being researched)
  • artifacts
  • video and sound recordings

Secondary Sources

They are someone's interpretation or analysis of another person's original work. Secondary sources will support, refute or review the original idea, so can help you prove the point you set out to make in your research paper.  

They're an important part of the "scholarly conversation" in that they're responding to someone else's ideas and ensuing research.

You'll find them in academic books and articles.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources consist of primary and secondary source information which has been collected and distilled. They present summaries of or an introduction to the current state of research on a topic.

Some common examples of sources that can be tertiary are:

  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • almanacs
  • textbooks

These sources are great places to begin your research as they provide introductory or background information on a topic, such as definitions and explanations of important terms and concepts. However, these sources aren't providing any new thoughts or interpretation to the scholarly conversation on the topic.

Wikipedia is an example of a tertiary source.