Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. They may also present original thinking, new discoveries or new information collected at the time of an event.

Types of primary sources:

  • Original documents (including excerpts and translations): diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, technical reports, empirical studies (research based on scientific and experimental results), news film footage, autobiographies, official records, ancient literature, magazine and newspaper articles, public opinion polls, medical charts.
  • Creative works: poetry, drama, novels, printed music, sound recordings, art.
  • Relics or artifacts: pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings. 

Examples of primary sources:

  • Diary of Anne Frank
  • The Constitution of Canada
  • Newspaper article from the time an event occurred
  • A journal article reporting new research or findings
  • Weavings and pottery
  • Plato's Republic 

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 of primary sources in them.

Types of secondary sources:

  • Publications: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias

Examples of secondary sources:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about the effects of WWII

Tertiary Sources

A tertiary source is a compilation or digest of primary and secondary sources.

Types of tertiary sources:

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies
  • Databases
  • Guidebooks
  • Almanacs

Additional Information

Canadian History Subject Guide - Finding and Using Primary Sources
Chart for Identifying Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources (U. North Carolina, Wilmington)

Further Assistance

Contact Margaret McLeod

Content last updated: May 17, 2018