Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

NoodleTools for Students: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary - What's the Difference?

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are “first hand” accounts of an event, an occurrence, or a time period produced by a participant or observer at the time, or shortly thereafter.  They can be published or unpublished.

Typically, primary sources include:

Unique documents or manuscripts - letters, diaries, journals, writings, speeches, photographs, scrapbooks, etc.

Historic records of an organization -  correspondence, memoranda, minutes, annual reports, etc.

Government documents - records, maps, and statistical data

Artwork and artifacts

Music and audiovisual materials - film, audio and video tape

Speeches and oral histories - printed transcripts or audio recordings

Photographs and advertisements

Electronic computer files - including emails

This tutorial from Harkness Library explains what primary sources are, and how they differ from secondary sources.

"Primary vs. Secondary Sources." YouTube, uploaded by Hartness Library, 25 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gStyna348M0. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.

How Do I Distinguish Between a Primary Source, a Secondary Source and a Tertiary Source?

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. U.S.         Govt. Print. Off., Washington, monographic,               1929. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of                     Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/l29000056/>.

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.
     http://www.noodletools.com/helpdesk/kb/index.php?action=article&id=189.

How Should I Compare Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources Across Academic Disciplines?

Comparison Across the Academic Disciplines

SUBJECT

PRIMARY

SECONDARY

TERTIARY

 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

 Patent

 NTIS database

 User's Manual

 Humanities

 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. http://www.lib.umd.edu/tl/guides/primary-sources. 

How to Locate Primary Sources

  • In Gale databases, if your search terms bring up primary sources, they will be listed in their own section. 
    Or you can use the Advanced Search feature and use the drop down box next to by content type: to select "Primary Sources"
  • In EBSCO databases, if your search terms bring up primary sources, you can look at the Refine Results box on the left-hand side of the page and scroll down to where it says Source Types to select the "Primary Source Documents"
    Or you can use the Advanced Search feature and use the Special limiters for MAS Ultra - School Edition to select Primary Source Document.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica is also a reliable source to get copies of primary source documents such as The Gettysburg Address, The Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, etc.

What Keywords Should I Use To Find Primary Sources?

Using the General Keyword search box - type in your topic plus one of the following words or phrases:

     Archive Source*  
     
Correspondence
     Diar
* (this retrieves both
         Diary and Diaries)
     History Archive*

     History Document*
     History Source
*
     Interview*
     Letter*
     
Personal Narrative*
     Primary source*

      Speech*

 

Note: Use of the * at the end of a word will search for both singular and plural forms.

What Questions Should I Ask?

In the Arts:

1. Was the source created during the time period you're studying? If the answer is yes, you are looking at a primary source.

2. Is it an object from a particular time in history? (Archie Bunker's chair? An Emily Dickinson poem?) This also counts as a primary source

3. Was the source written after an event took place? If so, it is a secondary source.

In the Sciences:

1. Is the source reporting original research?

2. Did the author(s) carry out this original research?

If the answer to the two above questions is yes, it is a primary source.

Based on the How Do I...: Find Primary Sources guide created by the librarians at Cline Library, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Handout for Students