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Primary vs Secondary Sources

   Primary sources

    A primary source is a document or record which contains first-hand information or original data on a topic. Primary sources are often created at the time of an event, but can also be recorded at a later time (e.g. memoirs or interviews). Primary sources provide insights into how people view their world at a particular time. It is important to evaluate primary sources for accuracy, authenticity, bias and usefulness.

    Examples of primary sources include:

    Audio recordings Artworks Court records
    Diaries Drawings Film footage
    Interviews Government documents Newspaper clippings
    Original manuscripts Photographs Poetry
    Posters Songs and sheet music Speeches

    Remember that primary sources are often reproduced in book format - but that they are still considered to be a primary source.

    Source: Reitz, JM 2004, Online dictionary for library and information science, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, Conn.

    Secondary sources

    A secondary source is any published or unpublished work that is one step removed from the original source (or event under review). A secondary source usually describes, summarises, analyses, evaluates, interprets of reviews primary source materials.

    Remember authors of secondary sources may use primary source material to persuade readers to support their arguments about an event and its meaning.

    Examples of secondary sources include:

    Biographical or historical studies Critical analyses Dictionaries
    Documentaries Encyclopedias Journal articles
    Reviews Textbooks Second person account

    Source: Reitz, JM 2004, Online dictionary for library and information science, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, Conn.

    Tertiary sources

    A tertiary source is a written work, based entirely on secondary sources, rather than on original research involving primary documents. Whether a source is secondary or tertiary can be determined by examining the bibliography (if one is provided). Another clue is that secondary sources are almost always written by experts, but tertiary sources may be written by staff writers who have an interest in the topic but are not scholars on the subject.

    Examples of tertiary sources include:

    • Chapter in a textbook
    • Entry in a reference book

The use of a source in its correct context is what determines its designation as a primary or secondary source.

Occasionally a source or document may serve as a secondary source for one subject and as a primary source for another altogether different subject.

For example:
Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, KW 1999, Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History, Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, Westport.

 It is important to evaluate primary, secondary and tertiary sources for accuracy, bias and usefulness. All works should be viewed through the eyes of the creator.

Considering the following questions will help determine the authenticity of the source, as well as any bias present:

  • Who created the source? How do they know the details such as names, dates and times? Were they present at the event? Is the information based on personal experience, reports written by others, or data?
  • How accurate is the source when compared to others (first-hand and second-hand accounts)?
  • How trustworthy is the source? Has it been edited? How and why did it survive?
  • Why and when was the source created? Why was it later published? Was it ever intended for publication?
  • What is the bias in the source? All documents are biased to some extent. Is the bias purposeful or accidental?

For more information on evaluating sources see the Evaluate tab.

Finding secondary sources

Databases are online collections of resources including articles, papers, book chapters and reports. Databases have advanced search options, helping to focus your search and find more relevant, scholarly references quickly.

History Databases 

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History podcasts

Libraries and museums

These are a few examples of the many galleries, libraries and museums with collections to explore. Many websites provide access to online images, videos and exhibitions.