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Understanding Sources: Primary & Secondary Sources


As a researcher, one of the first things you will do is engage with sources. There are 3 source types: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Scholarly inquiry largely draws on primary source analysis supported by secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Original source materials created during the period being studied, original empirical research, or raw data.

Empirical research (scientific experiments) Maps
Government documents Speeches
Raw data (statistics, survey results) Laws, statutes
Correspondence (letters, emails, tweets) Artifacts (man-made objects)
Official records (meeting minutes, birth certificate) Realia (everyday objects)
Oral histories Original works of art or literature
Photographs Historical newspapers

Secondary sources

Secondary sources represent the ideas and scholarship of others. They interpret, analyze, describe, or evaluate  primary and/or other secondary sources. Researchers engage with secondary sources and incorporate them into their own original scholarship. Knowledge creation does not exist in a vacuum and we build upon the ideas of others.

Non-fiction books Criticism Histories
Biographies Articles (most of the time) Newspaper articles*

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are a distillation of secondary and primary source material. These are sources generally used to locate facts or basic information. And yes...Wikipedia (not citable, but it can help get you started).


Dictionaries Handbooks
Encyclopedias Almanacs
Textbooks Subject-specific reference works



Primary sources provide evidence and allow us to apply meaning. They must be understood in the context of broader social, political, economic, and cultural realities at the time of creation. How we apply meaning to primary sources evolves and is often fiercely contested. The onus is on you to develop a credibly sourced, logical, and evidence-based argument for why your interpretation is valid.



How the researcher engages with a source ultimately determines if it is primary or secondary. A news article may be treated as a primary source (e.g., analyzing media coverage of a topic) or secondary (e.g., citing a news article as a substantiating source).



In your academic research, basic reference sources like Wikipedia are not sources you would cite. Use these sources to get a basic understanding, break a big topic down, and pick up on significant people, events, terms, and concepts. Keep track of these terms and use them to begin your database searches.