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NoodleTools How to Guide: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary - What's the Difference?

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary - Explained!

On this page you can find the answers to these questions:Britannica ImageQuest - Computer Keyboard Question Mark

What Are Primary Sources? - a definition and a video tutorial

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

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

What Keywords Should I Use?   - the keywords to use when searching for primary sources

What Questions Should I Ask?  -these can help you decide whether a source is primary or secondary

Where Can I Find Primary Sources on the Web?  - see the Primary Sources Guide!

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  They can be published or unpublished.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.

Community College of Vermont, and Vermont Technical College.
     Primary vs. Secondary Sources. YouTube. Hartness Library, 1 Aug.
     2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. .

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. Washington, D.C.:
      U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1929. Accessed November 20,
      2015. doi:musdi205


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.

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

Comparison Across the Academic Disciplines





   Art and

   Painting by Manet

    Article critiquing art piece

   ArtStor database


   Einstein's diary

     Monograph on Einstein's life

    Dictionary on Theory of Relativity

   Physical Sciences


    NTIS database

    User's Manual


    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. 

What Keywords Should I Use?

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

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

     History Document*
     History Source
Personal Narrative*
     Primary source*


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.