Types of Sources

A well-rounded paper includes information from many different types of sources. However, some instructors set guidelines regarding the types of sources you can use for your research paper. The two main types of sources are primary sources and secondary sources. If your instructor issues guidelines restricting the number or type of sources you may use, you need to be able to distinguish between them.

Primary Sources

A primary source is the original appearance of information or data. It has not been edited or evaluated in any manner. Primary sources often relay new information and are commonly printed at the time an event occurred, or soon afterward. Further research is based on primary sources, but primary sources are not based on any other research. These are some examples of primary sources:

  • Statistical data

  • Photos

  • Autobiographies

  • Speeches

  • Interviews

  • Minutes from a meeting

  • Legal documents

If you have difficulty finding primary source material, you can make use of some of the information included in the secondary source material. For instance, an encyclopedia entry about a specific event might mention people and groups that were closely involved in the event. You could then look for primary source material that came directly from those people or groups. You could look for their publications, such as a brochure put out by group, or diaries and letters written by the people involved.

Secondary Sources

Once information from a primary source is evaluated, analyzed, or otherwise modified, it is a secondary source. These sources provide some comment on the original data and are therefore one step further removed from the source. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a source is primary or secondary. For instance, a newspaper can be either one depending on whether it is reporting facts (primary) or providing commentary on those facts (secondary). Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • Biographies

  • Some magazine and newspaper articles

  • Some textbooks

  • Some encyclopedias

  • Review articles

  • Bibliographies

Secondary source documents include an analysis, similar to what you do with your information as your write your research paper. This analysis could be persuasive in nature, or it could hold a certain opinion about an issue, but this is not always the case. Some secondary source information is fairly objective, such as that in an encyclopedia entry.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are closely related to secondary sources. Sources are considered tertiary when they combine information from primary and secondary sources. These are sometimes a repackaging of the material contained in a secondary source. Some examples of tertiary sources are:

  • Almanacs

  • Guidebooks

  • Chronologies

  • Some dictionaries

  • Some textbooks

  • Some encyclopedias

You often can use tertiary sources to help you find primary and secondary sources. This can be helpful early in the research process if you aren't sure where to look for the information you want.

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