Answered By: Sara Dillard
Last Updated: Oct 30, 2015     Views: 65

For a history student, a primary source is often a document, photograph, recording, or other source of information that was created at roughly the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct, personal knowledge of the events being described. For a literature student, in addition to the sources listed above, a primary source could be a poem, a play, other literary work, an artwork, or perhaps even a film.

Secondary sources are writings that analyze and interpret the primary sources. They are mainly used for presenting the views of others about primary sources. Opinions and interpretations of other scholars bring credibility to your paper. For a history student, secondary sources could be, for example, writings about a certain work of a historical era.

It is usually better to start from tertiary or secondary sources to find background information on your topic and references to primary sources. When you have read what other scholars have to say about the topic, you can better judge the primary sources you will be using in your research.

Primary source material

Primary sources contain a first-hand account of the information presented. Examples are

  • statistics
  • standards
  • government information
  • lab reports
  • diaries
  • letters
  • log books
  • books & journal articles that present original, uninterpreted material
  • research results
  • art
  • photographs
  • films

Secondary source material

Secondary sources are writings that build on primary sources. Examples are

  • books that interpret or analyze the primary sources
  • conference publications
  • theses and dissertations
  • encyclopedias and handbooks that discuss the primary sources
  • periodical articles

Tertiary source material

Tertiary sources are usually indexes or encyclopedias that refer to primary and secondary sources. Examples are:

  • encyclopedias and handbooks that discuss the secondary sources
  • bibliographies
  • abstract publications
  • periodical indexes

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