Primary sources are original documents, objects, or media created during the time of the event being researched, or by an individual(s) who directly experienced an event, made a discovery, or created a new work of art. They are raw materials with a direct relationship to whatever is being studied.
Secondary sources are a step removed from the original source. They may comment or build upon original primary sources.
Tertiary sources typically compile and condense a range of primary and/or secondary sources into an easily-digestible format.
Research Tip: Across disciplines, contexts, and perspectives, the definition of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources differ. Some scholars consider encyclopedias secondary sources, while others consider them tertiary sources. In today’s environment of digitized content, most would contend an online image of a primary document or transcript is sufficient, while others might argue the original physical copy is essential for primary research. Like many areas of study, distinctions are fuzzy and subject to interpretation. When in doubt, clarify your instructor’s expectations.