Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Learn the difference between Primary and Secondary Sources at this visual tutorial from the University of Illinois.  With images, it overviews many examples of each type of source and discusses their value to research. This presentation basically presents all sources as EITHER primary or secondary.

But some researchers employ a third term “tertiary” (meaning “third level”) to describe sources such as textbooks or general encyclopedias (that are not specialized encyclopedias or offering primary sources.)  In tertiary resources, the authors are even more removed from the topic of study and not really involved in original research. A tertiary source is a collection and presentation of general background that might have been compiled by people working only from secondary sources.


Analyzing Primary Sources to use in your research:

A researcher cannot always take a primary source at face value.  As the tutorial above showed, primary sources can be extremely valuable and offer new insights from the time of the event.  However, some sources are biased, flawed or otherwise inaccurate. A tutorial from the University of Illinois provides 5 helpful questions to apply to your primary source.  These inquiries and your own questions will help you critically analyze the validity of the source and interpret its significance. Your critical analysis of all of your sources helps you to draw conclusions that you can stand behind.

Many primary sources can be located in the Library of Congress.  These guides equip students with the questions to ask as they analyze various types of primary sources, including photographs, manuscripts, sheet music, sound recordings and oral histories.