Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research at CSU-Pueblo

Primary Sources, Secondary Sources & Tertiary/Background Sources

Another information category is called publication mode and has to do with whether the information is

The three labels for information sources in this category are, respectively, primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary (or background) sources. Here are examples to illustrate the first—handedness, second-handedness, and third-handedness of information:

Primary Source

(Original, Firsthand Information)

J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye.
Secondary Source

(Secondhand Information)

A book review of Catcher in the Rye, even if the reviewer has a different opinion than anyone else has ever published about the book—he or she is still just reviewing the original work and all the information about the book here is secondary. 
Tertiary Source

(Third-hand Information)

Wikipedia page or entry in Literature Criticism Online (requires eAccount login) about J.D. Salinger.

When you make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. Understanding that relationship is an important skill that you’ll need in college, as well as in the workplace. Noting the relationship between creation and context helps us understand the “big picture” in which information operates and helps us figure out which information we can depend on. That’s a big part of critical thinking, a major benefit of  becoming an educated person.

Primary Sources—Because it is in its original form, the information in primary sources has reached us from its creators without going through any filter. We get it firsthand. Here are some examples that are often used as primary sources:

Secondary Source—These sources are translated, repackaged, restated, analyzed, or interpreted original information that is a primary source. Thus, the information comes to us secondhand, or through at least one filter. Here are some examples that are often used as secondary sources:

Tertiary or Background Source—These sources further repackage the original information because they index, condense, or summarize the original. These can also be referred to as Reference Sources.

Typically, by the time tertiary sources are developed, there have been many secondary sources prepared on their subjects, and you can think of tertiary sources as information that comes to us “third-hand.” Tertiary sources are usually publications that you are not intended to read from cover to cover but to dip in and out of for the information you need. You can think of them as a good place for background information to start your research but a bad place to end up. Here are some examples that are often used as tertiary sources:

Tertiary sources are usually not acceptable as cited sources in college research projects because they are so far from firsthand information. That’s why most professors don’t want you to use Wikipedia as a citable source: the information in Wikipedia is far from original information. Other people have considered it, decided what they think about it, rearranged it, and summarized it–all of which is actually what your professors want you, not another author, to do with information in your research projects.

Activity: Which Kind of Source?

Open activity in a web browser.

The Details Are Tricky—A few things about primary or secondary sources might surprise you:

It’s easy to think that it is the format of primary sources that makes them primary. But that’s not all that matters. So when you see lists like the one above of sources that are often used as primary sources, it’s wise to remember that the ones listed are not automatically already primary sources. Firsthand sources get that designation only when researchers actually find their information relevant and use it.

For instance: Records that could be relevant to those studying government are created every day by federal, state, county, and city governments as they operate. But until those raw data are actually used by a researcher, they cannot be considered primary sources.

Another example: A diary about his flying missions kept by an American helicopter pilot in the Viet Nam War is not a primary source until, say, a researcher uses it in her study of how the war was carried out. But it will never be a primary source for a researcher studying the U.S. public’s reaction to the war because it does not contain information relevant to that study.

For instance, movie reviews are usually considered secondary sources. But if your research project is about the effect movie reviews have on ticket sales, the movie reviews you study would become primary sources.

First, journal articles that report new research for the first time are usually based on data. So some disciplines consider the data to be the primary source, and the journal article that describes and analyzes them is considered a secondary source.

However, particularly in the sciences, the original researcher might find it difficult or impossible (he or she might not be allowed) to share the data. So sometimes you have nothing more firsthand than the journal article, which argues for calling it the relevant primary source because it’s the closest thing that exists to the data.

Second, even journal articles that announce new research for the first time usually contain more than data. They also typically contain secondary source elements, such as a literature review, bibliography, and sections on data analysis and interpretation. So they can actually be a mix of primary and secondary elements. Even so, in some disciplines, a journal article that announces new research findings for the first time is considered to be, as a whole, a primary source for the researchers using it.

ACTIVITY: Under What Circumstances?

Instructions: Look at each of the sources listed below and think of circumstances under which each could become a primary source. (There are probably many potential circumstances for each.) So just imagine you are a researcher with projects that would make each item firsthand information that is relevant to your work. What could a project be about that would make each source relevant firsthand information? Our answers are at the bottom of the page, but remember that there are many more–including the ones you think of that we didn’t!

  1. Fallingwater, a Pennsylvania home designed and constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s.
  2. Poet W.H. Auden’s elegy for Y.S. Yeats.
  3. An arrowhead made by (Floriday) Seminole Native Americans but found at Flint Ridge outside Columbus, Ohio.
  4. E-mail between the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and her staff about North Korea.
  5. A marriage license.

Despite their trickiness, what primary sources usually offer is too good not to consider using because:

Particularly in humanities courses, your professor may require you to use a certain number of primary sources for your project. In other courses, particularly in the sciences, you may be required to use only primary sources.

What are considered primary and secondary sources can vary from discipline to discipline. If you are required to use primary sources for your research project, before getting too deep into your project check with your professor to make sure he or she agrees with your choices. After all, it’s your professor who will be grading your project. A librarian, too, can verify your choices. Just remember to take a copy of your assignment with you when you ask, because the librarian will want to see the original assignment. After all, that’s a primary source!


  1. You are doing a study of the entrances Wright designed for homes, which were smaller than other architects of the time typically designed entrances.
  2. Your research project is about the Auden-Yeats relationship.
  3. Your research project is about trade among 19th century Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.
  4. Your research project is on how Ambassador Haley conveyed a decision about North Korea to her staff.
  5. You are writing about the life of a person who claimed to have married several times, and you need more than her statements about when those marriages took place and to whom.

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