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Writing for College and Beyond: Library Help

What Is a Secondary Source?

The function of secondary sources is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review.

  • Interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about events reported in primary sources.
  • Usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

(Definition from University of California Santa Cruz, University Library "Distinguish between Primary and Secondary Sources." Accessed March 30, 2016.

Types of Sources

Primary Source
Original material created at the time of the event or by the subject you are studying. This kind of material is the closest you can get to your actual subject, unfiltered by later scholars and critics. Examples of primary sources include:

personal letters
original works of research
interviews/ transcripts
scientific samples
survey and poll data
newspaper accounts of an event as it happened
field notes

Secondary Source
A work that analyzes primary sources. They can also act as primary sources, depending on your subject. Secondary sources include:

journal articles
books and monographs
critical reviews

 Tertiary Source
A source that indexes or otherwise collects primary or secondary sources. These sources tend to be most useful as jumping off points for your research, leading you to the more in-depth secondary and primary material. Examples include:

online indices