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2.3: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

  • Page ID
    65077
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    One way to figure out if something is a primary source is to ask yourself, "Can I get any closer to the actual event/person I am interested in studying?" If you can, then it is probably not the primary source. If you read an article that was written using diaries and interviews as the source of information you would be using a secondary source. You can get closer to the event/person. If you read the diaries and interviews themselves, you are using primary sources. Diaries, interviews, trial records, autobiographies and original research are often given as examples of a primary source. A secondary source usually interprets a primary source. They can include books (such as biographies) and many periodicals. A novel or film (The Great Gatsby or Star Wars) or any other work of art is a primary source; a review of the film or a book analyzing or commenting on the novel is a secondary source.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\)
    Source Description
    Primary source an information source providing first-hand knowledge
    Secondary source an information source derived from primary sources
    Tertiary source an information source that summarizes and/or digests primary or secondary sources

    Determining if something is a primary or secondary source can get blurry because it really depends upon what you are studying. A great primary source for women’s experiences in California during the gold rush is the Shirley Letters. These were written by Dame Shirley (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) who lived in gold rush towns and wrote letters about her experiences in 1851-1852 to her sister. If we use her letters to write a paper, we are using a primary source. If, however, she wrote about what she heard at the saloon on how mines were built, that part of her letter would be a great secondary information source about how gold mines were built even though we most often consider her letters primary sources. In his book, Anybody’s Gold, Jackson uses Shirley Letters as a primary source to write about Clappe and the California she lived in. When we use Jackson for a paper/project, therefore, we are reading a secondary source.

    As you can see, the lines can be blurred. Newspaper reporters or foreign correspondents on the front lines of a war reporting what they observe first hand are considered a primary source. An editorial commenting on the same war, published in the same newspaper would be considered a secondary source.

    When all this information is compiled, studied and reviewed for an encyclopedia entry, that would be considered tertiary. Encyclopedia and biographical dictionaries strive to provide straight forward background information on a topic, idea or event without a pronounced point of view. The purpose of tertiary sources is to summarize or to lead you to other sources by way of their bibliographies.

    Let’s say that we want information about Benjamin Franklin. There are thousands of information sources about Franklin. How you will search for the information is dependent upon how you will ultimately use it. A primary source would be the title The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. Secondary sources would be the titles Benjamin Franklin, Genius of Kites, Flights and Voting Rights by Seymour Block and Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lighting Rod and the Invention of America by Philip Dray.

    A tertiary source containing facts about Franklin would be Dictionary of American History or Encyclopedia of World Biography which distils just the facts from primary and secondary sources and offer this background information to us in encyclopedic form. A selection of examples follows.

    Primary Sources Secondary Sources Tertiary Sources
    Original works of literature, art, music Critique of original work Encyclopedias, dictionaries
    News reports of events by someone on the scene News editorial
    Diary, autobiography, letters, oral history Biography
    Historical documents such as laws / treaties Historical Commentary
    Televised program, movie Review
    Statistics and data from surveys Social Science article based on another’s data
    Observation / experiment Scientific article based on another’s experiment

    2.3: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Carol M. Withers with Bruce Johnson & Nathan Martin.