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Introduction - Source Types

Any sort of research assignment will require the analysis of primary, secondary, and tertiary resources in relation to your thesis or research topic. This section of the guide will define the three main types of resources with examples, and includes links to citation tutorials. 


Through this assignment, students will learn about information creation as a process. Knowledge Practices Learners who are developing their information literate abilities

  • assess the fit between an information product’s creation process and a particular information need;
  • recognize that information may be perceived differently based on the format in which it is packaged;
  • monitor the value that is placed upon different types of information products in varying contexts;
  • transfer knowledge of capabilities and constraints to new types of information products;

ACRL Framework 2015.

Primary Resources

Primary resources are defined as "material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness" (SAA). A primary source is a first-hand account of an event or topic. They are the most direct evidence of a time or event because they were created by people or things that were there at the time or event. These sources have not been modified by interpretation and offer original thought or new information. Primary sources are original materials, regardless of format, and can be considered the "Voices of our Past."

You may find primary sources in their original format, usually in an archive, or reproduced in a variety of ways (books, microfilm, digital, etc.) and hosted on a website for digital access.

Examples of primary resources include: 

  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, tools, clothing, all from the time of study)
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs, oral histories)
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
  • 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)
  • Websites

Secondary Resources

Secondary resources are crucial to any research project. Many historians will first search for appropriate secondary resources to start their research, leading them to find the primary sources that the secondary sources have cited. Secondary resources are defined as " a work commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries" (SAA). Some secondary resources also use primary sources to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion.  Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.

Examples of secondary resources include:

  • Bibliographies (also considered tertiary)
  • Biographical works
  • Commentaries, criticisms
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (also considered tertiary)
  • Histories
  • Journal articles (depending on the disciple 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 Resources

Tertiary resources can best be explained as a "third" type of resource that combines both primary and secondary sources in their formatting. "Tertiary resources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources" (College of Charleston Library). Consulting tertiary sources after selecting your topic will the data needed to argue for/against your secondary and primary sources.

Examples of tertiary resources include:

  • 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 (also considered secondary)