Distinguishing between primary, secondary and tertiary sources is an essential research skill.

Primary Sources

"Primary sources are items that are directly associated with their producer or user and the time period in which they were created. A primary source reflects the authority and perspective of someone who directly experienced what they are describing." from The Information Literate Historian, 3rd edition

Types of primary sources include:

  • Public/Official records: including speeches, manuscripts, original research, news broadcasts, official government documents (laws), text of a treaty, newspaper articles, and data sets
  • Personal documents: including diaries, correspondence, email, oral interviews, photographs, financial records and household accounts
  • Creative works: including engravings, monuments, printed music, video/audio recordings, and paintings
  • Literary texts: including ancient literature, novels, plays, poems, short stories, religious works
  • Artifacts: including pottery, furniture, tools, machines, clothing, firearms, relics
  • Architecture: including city plans, maps, blueprints, house drawings

Examples of primary sources:

  • The diary of a young girl: Anne Frank
  • Treaty 9 (also known as the James Bay Treaty)
  • Newspaper article from the time an event occurred
  • The speeches of Cicero
  • The prison letters of Nelson Mandela
  • Journal article reporting original research
  • Plato's Republic
  • Weavings or pottery

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics, etc. of primary sources within them.

Types of secondary sources:

  • Publications: Books, textbooks, magazine or journal articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries

Examples of secondary sources:

  • A review journal article that interprets previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • Academic or scholarly books
  • Biographies
  • Criticism and interpretations
  • Public opinion

Tertiary Sources

A tertiary source compiles or analyzes secondary sources, and also tends to be factual.

Examples of tertiary sources: (also known as reference tools)

  • Abstracts
  • Almanacs
  • Annotated Bibliographies
  • Chronologies
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Databases
  • Diagnostic manuals
  • Guidebooks
  • Handbooks
  • Indexes
  • Statistics

Content last reviewed: