Skip to main content

Primary Sources: Definitions

Find and use primary sources in your research.

There are Three Types of Sources:

1) Primary Sources

  • Materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand testimony, or an eyewitness account of a topic or event under investigation
  • Primary sources provide the raw data for your research
  • Examples:  In addition to diaries, correspondence, photographs, and many other types of sources typically considered to be primary sources, you may add just about anything to the list.  The way you interpret or use a source determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Use primary data to solve research problems
  • Examples:  scholarly books and articles
  • Secondary sources can be interpreted as primary sources when the artifactual characteristics of the item are of research value.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources for general readers
  • Examples:  textbooks, encyclopedia articles, Wikipedia

    Adapted from The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2008.

    Using Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

    Solid research requires the use of all three types of sources.  Primary sources will provide the raw data for your research, but you will also need encyclopedias, dictionaries, subject guides and other reference tools to gather background information on your topic and to identify the people, places, dates, organizations, and themes central to your topic. 

    Secondary sources such as books, scholarly journals, and newspaper articles synthesize current research and help put your subject in context.  Secondary sources are also important for helping to position your own argument within the scholarly conversation on your topic.  

    Use library catalogs, databases, printed reference sources, the web, and the assistance of your subject librarian to identify, locate, and use primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

    Primary vs. Secondary Sources

    The categories of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are not mutually exclusive. 

    The way one uses or interprets an item determines whether it is a primary or secondary source. 

    A book can be treated as an artifact, documents can consist of visual elements, and visual materials are often considered to be documents.

    Think of primary sources as the raw data for your research and consider this example:  Encyclopedias are usually considered to be classic reference sources.  However, they are primary sources to someone studying encyclopedias.

    Collections

    Archival Boxes

    Archival collections shelved in the Tamiment Library.

    Workers Atop Beams, Charles Rivers Photographs Collection, Tamiment Library, PHOTOS 050

    Books on the shelves in Tamiment.

    Reference books, Tamiment Library.