Writing a Research Paper

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are 'first-hand' materials or provide direct evidence on the topic. These are materials that were written (recorded / created) during the time period being studied or are from 'eye-witnesses'. Correspondence written by Thomas Cromwell or John Bunyan would represent 'primary' source documents. Coins, recorded radio programs and tesearch journal articles would also be considered primary sources.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are materials written about the subject, and are usually written after the historical event. Secondary materials tend to 'interpret' or 'analyze' primary materials and are usually at least one step removed from the primary materials. These materials would include items such as biographies, commentaries, and some journal articles.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are materials of a more general nature and less focused on the subject than secondary materials. Examples of tertiary materials include encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, manuals, and bibliographies.

Examples and further descriptions

  • The University of Maryland Library has prepared a very useful webpage about the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary which includes examples across different disciplines.
  • Yale has an excellent website dedicated to describing 'primary' materials at Yale which gives a good example of what kind of materials would be considered 'primary'.
  • The University of California Berkeley Library has prepared a comprehensive webpage on what primary sources are, and how to find them in their library (which again gives good examples of the kinds of materials defined as 'primary)'.