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Research Smarter: Information Literacy Skills: Source Types

Build essential research skills for college success and lifelong learning.

What are sources?

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

This short video explains primary and secondary sources.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

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. Examples include:

  • Photographs, speeches, diaries, editorials, letters, interviews, historic artifacts, works of art, musical scores, performances, literary works, survey research, legal documents, proceedings, patents, video or audio recordings of events being studied, etc.

Secondary sources are a step removed from the original source. They may comment or build upon the original primary sources. Examples include:

  • Second-hand reports on events, research, or works created by someone else at a different time; criticisms; reviews; interpretations; citations; etc.

Tertiary sources typically compile and condense a range of primary and/or secondary sources into an easily-digestible format. Examples may include:

  • Encyclopedias, almanacs, timelines, bibliographies, directories, fact books, etc. (Note: Many of these are also considered secondary sources.)

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, be sure to clarify your instructor’s expectations.


Work Cited

"Civil Rights Act (1964)." Our Documents, n.d.,

An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States, to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes, July 2, 1964; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.


The Pros and Cons of Different Source Types


  • Peer-reviewed: experts read and comment on quality of article prior to publication
  • Authority is clear
  • Articles written by the experts themselves, not by outside journalists
  • Almost always include citations
  • Often affiliated with professional organizations
  • Less influenced by ad revenue than magazines and newspapers


  • Not cheap or easy to find outside of academia
  • Publish articles less frequently than newspapers or websites = not suitable for breaking news
  • Written for experts in the field; can be too technical for a newcomer or casual reader

Intended Audience: Scholars, researchers, professionals, and university students in particular field

Watch for: "Predatory" or "pay to publish" online journals


  • Current information
  • Specialized articles related to a particular discipline or profession (including context and analysis)


  • Sources not always cited
  • Articles vary between short and easy to lengthy and highly specific

Intended Audience: Professional organizations or professionals/scholars with similar interests

What For / Consider: Has characteristics in common with both popular magazines and scholarly journals


  • More space than newspapers, magazines, or journals results in greater depth of information
  • Often include tables of contents and indexes for easy navigation and discovery
  • Often include footnotes, endnotes, and/or bibliographies
  • Most books undergo some sort of editorial process (usually writer - editor)


  • Take more time to read than other sources
  • Can take months or even years to publish
  • Many books do not undergo peer review
  • Rise in self-publishing means more unedited or poorly edited books reach publication

Intended Audience: Varies (general audience through scholars)

What For / Consider: Information may be dated due to the time it takes to publish a book.


  • More space than newspapers = longer articles, more depth
  • Published faster than books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people: reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles


  • Less space than books
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites or newspapers; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience or those with a specific, recreational interest (e.g. sports, fashion, science, etc.)

What For / Consider: Potential editorial bias


  • Published more frequently than magazines, journals, or books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people -- reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles


  • Space limitations = shorter articles, less detail
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Contains both fact-based reporting and editorial content (opinions). Opinions may be biased.


  • Easy to find using Google
  • Often have higher editorial and design standards than personal websites
  • Often managed by professional writers and designers
  • Government websites are designed to inform citizens


  • Commercial interests may come first
  • Articles are written for general audiences
  • Bylines often missing and works rarely cited

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Governmental and educational websites have higher credibility than commercial websites


  • Articles easy to find using the site’s search field or Google
  • Articles about current events updated frequently
  • Best articles are edited by a crowd of interested and informed writers
  • Useful for background information


  • Editorial standards set by community; minimal oversight from Wikipedia staff
  • Articles on obscure topics can go untouched for months
  • Non-experts have just as much editorial control as experts
  • Worst articles are poorly written and poorly sourced
  • Instructors do not allow use as a source

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Use the reference list to find other sources that can used


  • Easy to find through Google
  • Might be updated quickly and frequently
  • Direct access to person / author
  • Access to scholarly work in progress
  • Expansion of published work


  • No editorial standards or oversight = author can express opinions, biases, and incorrect information with few consequences
  • May not include information about the author, date of publication, or sources cited (if any)
  • Vary widely in quality and reliability

Intended Audience: General audience through scholars depending on the source

What For / Consider: High potential for bias. Usually informal.

Explore different Source Types

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