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History: Source Types

Primary Sources

"Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research." This definition come from the American Library Association

Primary Sources Examples

• 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;

• Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail);

• Letters;

• Newspaper articles written at the time;

• 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);

• 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). Use ArtStor to find artwork

• Web site.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources offer an analysis or restatement of primary sources. They often try to describe or explain primary sources. They tend to be works which summarize, interpret, reorganize, or otherwise provide an added value to a primary source 

To differentiate it from a primary source, a secondary source of information is one that was created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. For the purposes of a historical research project, secondary sources are generally scholarly books and articles. 

For secondary sources, often the best sources are those that have been published most recently. If you use a secondary source that was published decades ago, it is important to know what subsequent scholars have written on the topic and what criticism they have made about the earlier work or its approach to the topic.

Secondary Sources Examples

  • Biographical works;
  • Journal articles 
  • Monographs (scholarly books);
  • Web site (also considered primary).

Tertiary Sources

These are sources that index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Check our links for E-Reference and Print Reference 

Tertiary Sources Examples

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