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Intro to Library Resources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Why Should I Think About My Sources


We live in a society where information comes at us from every direction: top down, bottom up, and sideways from our friends and colleagues. Thinking about the type of information you are looking for helps you narrow the playing field. 

You will get the right kind of information you need faster.

It helps you EVALUATE the appropriateness and validity of information.

Information doesn't just "happen" or "exist" on its own.  It is produced by people and then disseminated, either through traditional (e.g., mainstream and scholarly publishers) or non-traditional (e.g., self-publishers, Internet) channels. Each has its merits, based on the kind of information you need.

Knowing what type of source you need or are currently using will tell you how the information has come to exist, so you can answer the following:

  • Who is the author? Why should I believe him or her? What expertise or credibility does he or she have?
  • Who has published this information? For what purpose? Has it been validated, reviewed, or edited?
  • How current is this information?
  • How objective is this information? What biases, assumptions, or worldviews underlie it?

Primary Secondary and Tertiary Sources

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  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights
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
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Biography
A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.
  • Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog


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