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Guide to the Research Process: 3b. Primary vs. Secondary Sources

This guide provides an introduction to the skills needed to conduct research.

Primary vs Secondary Sources

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

Source Type Examples
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  • Historical documents, e.g. Constitution
  • Newspaper stories
  • Audio and video recordings
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
  • Journal articles interpreting previous findings
  • Review of a book, music CD, or art show
  • Biography
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias
A tertiary source is further removed from the primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.
  • Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog

Comparison of Primary and Secondary Sources

Discipline                      Primary                                                Secondary                                                               
Literature Poem Scholarly article interpreting poem
Theology (example) Institutes of the Christian Religion--John Calvin A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes
Theology (example) The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis C. S. Lewis:  A Biography