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Prof. Vecchio - 20th Century U.S. History - SPRING 2022: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Think about how you will use these types of sources to answer your research question.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is useful to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.

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
  • Novel (fiction) or film
  • 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  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights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.


  • Journal article reporting on a scientific study
  • Newspaper and Magazine articles
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Critique of a work of fiction or film
  • Biography


A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.

  • Indexes and Bibliography
  • Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
  • Library catalog
  • Most textbooks
  • Guidebooks

Primary and Secondary Source Examples

PrimaryEyewitness account of an event - unedited and direct from the source.

Secondary: News article reporting eyewitness testimony. Testimony has been edited or paraphrased by the journalist.


Primary: Impromptu speech given by Robert F. Kennedy on April 5, 1968 announcing the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Secondary Article in the New Republic magazine reporting on the event with commentary on Kennedy's speech.


Primary:  FBI records of their investigations into Abbie Hoffman as a domestic security threat.

Secondary: A biography about Abbie Hoffman, such as Abbie Hoffman, American Rebel by Marty Jezer.

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