What are Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources?

By Amanda Marie Clark

Primary, secondary, tertiary, oh my! What do these types of sources mean? How do you know which ones to use? And why do the different kinds of sources matter anyway?

You might be falling asleep just thinking about it.

But as you gather sources and put them through our Cite This For Me citation generator—which quickly creates full and in-text citations and makes citing a lot easier—you also need to know the types of sources you’re using. Why? Sometimes teachers place restrictions on source types. Other times, the assignment itself caters to certain types of sources.

For example, an interview is a first-hand account, so it’s a primary source. In a paper, you wouldn’t want the bulk of your information to be about an interview of an interview. Although, it may be helpful to include critiques of an interview from experts (a secondary source).

Each research assignment has a different intent and audience. Knowing your source types can help you understand which direction to go to for research, and can also make your source list appear more well-rounded.

Still confused? Fear not; we’ve got your back.

Check out the definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources with an example of each. 

Primary Sources

Primary sources are closest to the cause. Meaning they are first-hand accounts of what happened, or are the original record, item, or work of art.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters about the Selma to Montgomery marches are excellent examples of primary sources. Dr. King was there. His account was at the front of the lines and unfiltered.

Transcripts of famous speeches, government documents, and photographs are also good examples of first-hand sources. As hinted at earlier, primary sources aren’t just written documents. They can even include art or artifacts. For example, a Cherokee arrowhead offers remarkable information about that tribe’s culture through its material and craftsmanship.

Why are primary sources important? Primary sources form the facts, and leave little room for bias.

If source types were a three-layered house, primary sources would be the foundation.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are one step away from the original source. In other words, these sources look at an original document or thing, and expand on it with more analysis. Secondary sources can also describe a primary source.

An example would be a textbook summary about the march on Selma, or a review of a transcripted speech.

Earlier, we said that primary sources would be the foundation of a house. Secondary sources would be the walls of that house.

A major bonus: Secondary sources are often easier to find than primary sources and they usually present an easy-to-read narrative of what happened from multiple perspectives.

Believe it or not, source types don’t end there. There are even tertiary sources. Oh my!

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are a compilation of primary and secondary sources.

Let’s get back to that house we talked about earlier. Primary sources are like the foundation, secondary sources are like the walls, and tertiary sources are the roof.

Tertiary sources take all of the information found before, such as personal quotes (primary) reviewed articles (secondary), and compile them into one source (tertiary).

Great examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedias, handbooks, dictionaries, manuals, and Wikipedia. Tertiary sources are important because they have facts and analysis all in one place. Holy convenience!

They often offer varying perspectives as well. But keep in mind that tertiary information has gone through a few filters and could leave room for some biased accounts. Of course, this isn’t always the case.

Putting it All Together

Before selecting and citing your sources (super important), it’s essential to evaluate how many types of sources you have. Source types include books, journal articles, websites, images, videos, and more.

Varying the types of sources creates a more balanced paper and offers different perspectives that will keep your reader engaged. Just keep in mind that assignment guidelines might also limit your source types. No matter the case, knowing the differences between sources is a good thing.

So the next time you hear the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary, don’t frown. Have pride that you know the definitions of each and how to implement them in your future research.

Now hit the books, or the speeches, or the guides—luckily, you’ll know which one to choose. Just remember, before you’re through with taking notes from the primary, secondary, and tertiary sources you’ve scoured, be responsible! Create citations! Cite This For Me has the tools you need to easily develop a works cited page in MLA formatting, create an APA citation, or compile a reference list in Harvard referencing.