Monday, November 16, 2009

Primary Sources

When doing research, you have to differentiate between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. What makes a source primary, secondary, or tertiary is partly the source itself and partly how you use it.

Primary sources are the foundation for research. They're direct evidence of what you're researching. In psychology, a primary source could be a diary or an interview with a subject. In the sciences, they could be the readouts from equipment and spreadsheets of data gathered from observations. Kinds of primary sources include:
  • diaries, journals, letters, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies (not ghost-written ones!)
  • photographs, audio and audio-visual recordings of events
  • sketches and written accounts of events by witnesses
  • equipment readouts, tables of data, logs of observations
  • documents and artifacts produced by an event or phenomenon
Secondary sources are other people talking/writing about primary sources. For example, scholarly articles and monographs are secondary sources. They analyze, interpret, and formulate opinions. Secondary sources contain someone's original thoughts and interpretations of the primary sources. Kinds of secondary sources include:
  • monographs (scholarly non-fiction books)
  • scholarly articles
  • many non-scholarly non-fiction works
  • documentaries
Tertiary sources are not used in scholarly research. They're used strictly for teaching and learning - textbooks to introduce a person to a subject and reference books to provide background information and answer questions about the subject. The information they contain may be correct, reliable, and even advanced, but what makes them non-scholarly is that they're not original thoughts. Kinds of tertiary resources include:
  • textbooks and accompanying materials
  • many educational videos
  • reference books
  • many websites
It gets a little more complicated in the humanities. In literature, history, and cultural studies especially, things that were originally written as secondary and tertiary sources can become primary sources! For example, a 19th century science textbook for children was originally a tertiary source, but in the hands of a person studying the history of science education, it's direct evidence of past science pedagogy. Or a medieval treatise on theology might have been intended as a secondary source, but a modern Women's Studies scholar might use it as a primary source on medieval beliefs about sex and gender.
Questions? Ask a Librarian

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