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Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Your professor has instructed you to get primary or secondary materials for your research project, and you are confused. If you understand the publication cycle of information, you will then understand what your professor means when she requests primary or secondary materials. Chart One of this guide defines the different stages of the cycle of information.
  • Timing of the event recorded--If the article was composed close to the time of the event recorded, chances are it is primary material. For instance, a letter written by a soldier during the Vietnam War is primary material, as is an article written in the newspaper at the time of the Vietnam War. However, an article written about the Vietnam War in recent years would be secondary material.
  • Rhetorical aim of the written item--Often, an item that is written with a persuasive, or analytical, aim is secondary material. These materials have digested and interpreted the event with a certain detachment not characteristic of primary materials.
  • Context of the researching scholar--Primary materials for a critic studying the literature of the Vietnam War are different from primary materials for a research scientist studying the affects of Agent Orange syndrome. The critic's primary materials are the poems, stories, and films of the era. The research scientist's primary materials would be the medical records of those person exposed to Agent Orange.
Chart Two lists subject heading subdivisions you may see on library catalog items, indicating the stage of publication in which the information may be located. For instance, if you see the subdivision, "personal narrative," the cataloged item is likely to be primary information. If the subdivision is "history," the item is likely to be secondary, because the information is digested and interpreted. If the subdivision is "bibliography," the item is likely to be tertiary because the information is a compilation of secondary materials.
 
CHART ONE: CYCLE OF INFORMATION
  PRIMARY SECONDARY TERTIARY
DEFINITIONS Sources that contain raw, original, non interpreted and unevaluated information. Sources that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret the information contained within primary sources. They tend to be argumentative. Sources that compile, analyze, and digest secondary sources. They tend to be factual.
TIMING OF PUBLICATION CYCLE Primary sources tend to come first in the publication cycle. Secondary sources tend to come second in the publication cycle. Tertiary sources tend to come last in the publication cycle.
FORMATS--depends on the kind of analysis being conducted. Often newspapers, weekly and monthly-produced magazines; letters, diaries. Often scholarly periodicals and books. (Professors like these.) Often reference books.
EXAMPLE: Historian (studying the Vietnam War) Newspaper articles, weekly news magazines, monthly magazines, diaries, correspondence, diplomatic records. Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war. Historical Dictionary of Vietnam ; The Vietnam War, An Almanac
Example: Literary Critic (studying the literature of the Vietnam War) Novels, poems, plays, diaries, correspondence. Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers of the war. Writing About Vietnam; A Bibliography of the Literature of the Vietnam Conflict; Dictionary of Literary Biography
Example: Psychologist (studying the effects of the Vietnam syndrome) Article in a magazine that reports research and its methodology; notes taken by a clinical psychologist. Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology
Example: Scientist (studying Agent Orange exposure) Article in a magazine reporting research and methodology. Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books doing same. Agent Orange and Vietnam: An Annotated Bibliography

CHART TWO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS SUBDIVISIONS INDICATING PRIMARY, SECONDARY, AND TERTIARY SOURCES
PRIMARY
SECONDARY
TERTIARY
 
biography (only if it's on an autobiographical record)
cases
correspondence
description and travel
diaries
fiction
interview
personal narrative
pictorial works
poetry
short stories
sources
biography (only if it's describing a biography--not an autobiography)
criticism and interpretation
history
history and criticism
government policy
law and legislation
moral and ethical aspects
political aspects
politics and government
psychological aspects
public opinion
religion
religious aspects
social policy
study and teaching
abstracts
bibliography
bio-bibliography
chronology
classification
dictionaries
dictionaries and encyclopedias
directories
encyclopedias
guidebooks
handbooks, manuals, etc.
identification
indexes
registers
statistics
tables
index
 
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