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Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources: Primary

Find out how to recognise primary, secondary and tertiary information sources

Primary sources

Vintage photograph imageThere are a number of different definitions for primary literature. These can vary according to the academic discipline (ie. science or humanities). In brief:

These are original materials which have not been filtered through interpretation, condensation, or, often, even evaluation by a second party; for example journal articles, monographs, reports, patents, theses, diaries, letters, photographs, poems.

Some definitions of primary sources:

  • Handwritten diary imagePrimary sources are original materials on which other research is based

  • They are usually the first formal appearance of results in the print or electronic literature (for example, the first publication of the results of scientific investigations is a primary source.)

  • They present information in its original form, neither interpreted nor condensed nor evaluated by other writers.

  • They are from the time period (for example, something written close to when what it is recording happened is likely to be a primary source.)

  • Primary sources present original thinking, report on discoveries, or share new information.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Blueprint imagescientific journal articles reporting experimental research results

  • proceedings of Meetings, Conferences and Symposia.

  • technical reports

  • dissertations or theses (may also be secondary)

  • patents

  • sets of data, such as census statistics

  • works of literature (such as poems and fiction)

  • diaries

  • autobiographies

  • interviews, surveys and fieldwork

  • letters and correspondence

  • speeches

  • newspaper articles (may also be secondary)

  • government documents

  • photographs and works of art

  • original documents (such as birth certificate or trial transcripts)

  • Internet communications on email, listservs, and newsgroups

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