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Evaluating Print (Non-Web) Sources: Primary & Secondary Sources

What are primary and secondary sources?

College professors often require that their students use primary sources in their research assignments and papers.  They want their students to learn to assess evidence for themselves rather than viewing an issue/event/person through the eyes of other researchers.  The following definitions and examples can help in making the determination whether a source is primary or secondary (or even tertiary).


I.              Primary

Primary sources are variously defined as:

·         Information in its original form when it first appears;

·         Materials closest to the events or people being researched;

·         Evidence provided directly by an observer of an event;

·         Original works of art or literature;

·         Original documents;

·         Objects that came into existence during the period that is being studied.


Primary sources have not been put into a context, interpreted, filtered, condensed, or evaluated by anyone else.  A primary source may be a reprint of an original document, such as the United States Constitution, as long as nothing has been changed or added.


Examples of primary sources (list not exhaustive):


News articles based on direct observation

Handwritten manuscripts

Baptismal or death records

Reports based on direct observation

Musical scores or recordings


Interviews or surveys

Legislative bills, laws, debates, or other historical documents

Films, TV shows, videotapes, or webcasts

Letters, memoirs, diaries, journals, or autobiographies

Government publications



Court records

Folk songs

Short stories, novels, essays, or poetry

Diplomatic dispatches


E-mails, blogs, or other electronic postings

Police reports

Buildings or household and everyday objects

First publication of a scientific study


Telephone books

Laboratory studies

Minutes of organizations


Field research reports

Business records

Works of art


II.         Secondary

Secondary sources are materials based on primary sources.  They contain description, analysis, and interpretation of the primary source information or of other secondary sources.  Secondary sources restate, rearrange, or examine information from one or more primary sources.  Secondary sources can lead you to primary information.


Secondary sources include the following:

·         Newspaper or magazine feature articles not based on observed events;

·         Biographies (as opposed to autobiographies);

·         Materials such as books that summarize, synthesize, analyze, or make an argument based on primary sources;

·         Critiques or reviews of events, literary works, works of art, or performances;

·         Articles reporting on scientific studies;

·         Classmate’s notes on a professor’s lecture.


III.            Tertiary

Tertiary sources are even further removed from the original information than a secondary source.  For example, many textbooks are researched and written using only secondary sources.  This is also true of general encyclopedia articles.  Bibliographies and indexes are other examples of tertiary sources, which lead to both primary and secondary sources.


 A Note of Caution:  Many sources can be categorized either as primary or secondary depending on the subject being studied.  For example, the book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, is a secondary source if you are researching cosmology.  On the other hand, if your subject is Stephen Hawking himself, all of his writings would be primary sources.



Works Consulted


Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The methods and skills of history: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.


Hacker, D. (2006). The Bedford handbook (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


Palmquist, M. (2003). The Bedford researcher. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.


Weidenborner, S., Caruso, D., & Parks, G. (2005). Writing research papers: A guide to the process (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.