Answered By: Coe Library Help Desk
Last Updated: Apr 13, 2016     Views: 22

It may be useful to explain the types of sources since each academic field of study (discipline) defines sources a bit differently.

Primary Source: What is defined as a primary source makes sense only within the context of a specific field of inquiry. In the humanities and arts, a primary document may be a written document or a painting. It may be part of a historical record written about or during an event. In the sciences (physical, biological, and social), a primary source may be a publication of original research. Primary sources may also be specific data sets.

Cornell University defines a primary source as "the main text or work that you are discussing (e.g. a sonnet by William Shakespeare; an opera by Mozart); actual data or research results (e.g. a scientific article presenting original findings; statistics); or historical documents (e.g. letters, pamphlets, political tracts, manifestoes)" (1). Yale University defines "A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. The same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another. The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents." (2).

Secondary Source: Secondary sources are books, periodicals, websites, and such that people publish using primary source information. These documents are not written by eyewitnesses to events, for instance, but use eyewitness accounts, photographs, diaries and other primary sources to reconstruct events or to support the writer's thesis about the events, and most importantly, their meaning and significance. Many books in the University of Wyoming Libraries catalog are secondary sources.

Tertiary Sources: These are publications that summarize and explain the information in primary and secondary sources to provide background on a topic, idea, or event. Examples are encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries are good examples.


1. http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=32568&p=205050

2. Ibid.

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