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Primary Sources and Original Research

Helpful tips on locating and evaluating primary sources and original research

When evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is useful to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.

Source Type Examples

Primary
A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event.

This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.

  • First person account of an event
  • First publication of a scientific study
  • Speech or lecture
  • Original artwork
  • Handwritten manuscript
  • Letters between two people
  • A diary
  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights

Secondary
A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.

  • Newspaper reporting on a scientific study
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Biography

Tertiary
A tertiary source is further removed from primary source.

It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.

  • Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog 

Note:  Determining whether a source is primary or secondary can be tricky, as the same source could sometimes be primary or secondary depending on how you use it.  ex: Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

REMEMBER- you cannot always tell what kind of source it is based on where it appears (book, newspaper, academic journal, etc.) -  when in doubt ask your instructor or a librarian.

Finding Primary Sources--Non-history topics