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Advanced Research: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

This guide is for MSJC students and advanced researchers and features topics such as strategic browsing, finding data and research tips to make your research process more efficient.

Sources

Primary Sources

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

    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, etc.
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications, reporting study results by the researchers conducting the research.
  • Letters
  • Newspaper articles written at the time of events
  • 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, meeting minutes)
  • 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

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

Tertiary Sources

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

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