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High School Campus Library: Understanding Source Types


How to evaluate a source - the OPVL method


Lateral Reading

John Green's Crash Course on Digital Info

Really? Using Wikipedia in research...

Comparison of Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

Comparison Across the Academic Disciplines





   Art and Architecture

   Painting by Manet

    Article critiquing art piece

   ArtStor database

    Chemistry / Life Sciences

   Einstein's diary

     Monograph on Einstein's life

    Dictionary on Theory of Relativity

    Engineering / Physical Sciences


    NTIS database

    User's Manual


   Letters by

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Web site on King's writings

    Encyclopedia on Civil Rights Movement

    Social Sciences

   Notes taken by clinical   psychologist

    Magazine article about the psychological       condition

 Textbook on clinical psychology

    Performing Arts

   Movie filmed in 1942

    Biography of the director

    Guide to the movie

Teaching and Learning Services. "Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources."  University of Maryland Libraries. Last modified February 3, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2015. 

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Working on a specific area of research and engaging with different sources of information and data, you may be exposed to different and new perspectives on issues and topics. At this stage, you need to construct a resource plan, identifying relevant resources needed. You should also produce a schedule indicating when each resource will be used and note any assumptions and constraints made during the resource planning process. IB suggests that students should use both primary and secondary sources for their research. However, students generally (in most groups anyway) use secondary data as the basis of their EE, supported where appropriate by primary research. The sole use of secondary sources is permitted and will allow students access to all levels of the EE assessment criteria (IB EEG, p.146). 

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. 

Primary Source Secondary Source
Primary sources are materials that are direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or as close to the original source as possible. Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. analyzes based on primary sources.


  • historical and legal documents
  • eyewitness accounts
  • results of experiments
  • statistical data
  • diaries and letters 
  • pieces of creative writing
  • audio and video recordings
  • speeches, and art objects
  • Interviews
  • surveys
  • fieldwork, and
  • Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups 
  • Scholarly Journal Articles
  • Magazines
  • Reports
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • Documentaries
  • Newspapers
  • *Most books about a topic

*Please note that a book is simply a format.  You can find primary and secondary sources published in book form


Note: Often secondary and primary sources are relative concepts.  Typical secondary sources may be primary sources depending on the research topic.

  1. Intellectual history topics
    For example, although scholarly journal articles are usually considered secondary sources, if one's topic is the history of human rights, then journal articles on human rights will be primary sources in this instance.  Similarly, research on the thinking of a scholar will include her published journal articles as primary sources.
  2. Historical topics
    Magazine articles are secondary sources, but for someone researching the view of judicial punishment in the 1920s, magazines from that time period are primary sources.  Indeed, any older publication, such as those prior to the 20th century, is very often automatically considered a primary source.
  3. Newspapers may be either primary or secondary
    Most articles in newspapers are secondary, but reporters may be considered as witnesses to an event.  Any topic on the media coverage of an event or phenomenon would treat newspapers as a primary source.  There are so many articles and types of articles in newspapers that they can often be considered both primary and secondary.

Source: Susan Trower of West Sound Academy, Washington, USA

How Do I Distinguish Between Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources?

Primary sources are the surviving original records of a period, eyewitness accounts and first-published documentation of new information. 

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Peer-reviewed journal articles about one's original research or ideas.
  • Autobiographies, letters, diaries, and journals describing one's personal experience, activities, and the people, places and events at the time.
  • Oral histories, interviews and ethnographic research records. 
  • Sound and video recordings of an event or people.
  • Published material written at the time, such as newspapers, books and articles.
  • Government or court records including birth and death certificates, deeds, trial transcripts, census records, patents, treaties and other documents.
  • Business records such as reports, surveys and minutes of meetings and conferences that document contemporaneous activities, people and events.
  • Art such as architecture, sculpture, photographs, drawings, maps, posters and cartoons.
  • Written creations such as literary works, sacred texts and musical scores.
  • Artifacts such as tools, weapons, crafts, furniture, buildings, roads, machines or other objects made by humans living at the time.

Public dance halls, their regulation and place in the recreation of adolescents, by Ella Gardner, 1929

    Gardner, Ella. Public Dance Halls, Their Regulation and Place in the Recreation of Adolescents. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1929. Accessed November 20, 2015. doi:musdi205

Secondary sources interpret the past and analyze primary sources. 

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Journal articles that review the original work of others.
  • Biographies and histories written by people who did not experience events or the time first-hand.
  • Commentaries and criticism of primary sources.
  • Historical studies, literature reviews and textbooks.
  • Magazine articles and Web pages which describe events or ideas a substantial time after they have occurred.

Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s By Carol Martin    

Martin, Carol. "Legislation Relevant to Dance Marathons." Appendix to Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s, 147-60. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Accessed November 20, 2015. Questia School.

Tertiary sources are distillations and indexes of primary and secondary sources. 

Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Textbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • Handbooks
  • Almanacs
  • Digests and abstracts
  • Indexes and bibliographies

'Fads and Crazes.' American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al.

"'Fads and Crazes.'" Topic Overview to 1920-1929., edited by Judith S. Baughman, Victor Bondi, Richard Layman, Tandy McConnell, and Vincent Tompkins. Vol. 3 American Decades. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001. Accessed November 20, 2015.



NoodleTools Inc. "[All Styles] How Do I Distinguish between a Primary Source, a Secondary Source and a Tertiary Source?" In KnowledgeBase, by NoodleTools Support Center. Last modified June 29, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2015.