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Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources: Primary Sources

How to distinguish between primary, secondary & tertiary source material

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original first-hand materials, such as eye-witness or direct experience accounts, containing factual accounts of an event, created close to the time of the event occurrence.


Audio recordings: radio programs & podcasts Autobiographies and memoirs
Books, short stories, poems, manuscripts Census statistics
Data sets, technical reports, experimental research results Diaries, personal letters, correspondence
Government documents: bills, reports, hearings, patents, etc. Internet communications: email & listservs;
Interviews (eg. oral histories, phone, e-mail), survey research, fieldwork Newspaper articles, televison programs or film footage reporting from the time an event occurred
Original documents: marriage certificate, wills, birth certificate Scholarly, peer-reviewed journal article reporting new research or findings
Technical reports, proceedings of meetings, conferences, and symposia Works of art, music, architecture, photographs & maps

NOTE: Web sites can be considered to be Primary or Secondary sources, depending on the context.

There are a number of clues to identify primary research articles. Review the abstract as it is often indicated that an original study or event formed the basis of the article. Often the author(s) introduces the study with one of the following examples:

The aim of the study was to determine...               Our research concluded that...               We looked at two groups of adolescents...               The study evaluated...


Something is not a primary source simply because it is old.

Sometimes a source could be considered primary or secondary and could be used either way, depending upon the discipline or context. Consult your instructor if you are unsure if an item counts as primary.

Example: The 2009 book: Raymond Carver: A writer's life", by Carol Sklenicka is a secondary source, if you are researching Raymond Carver's life. If you are researching Carol Sklenicka's literary style, the book is a primary source.

To evaluate primary sources, consider the following issues:

  • the social, political or economical environment in which the document was composed
  • the writer's source of information, motivation and biases
  • other primary sources that might expand, clarify or contradict the document