Primary and Secondary Sources
How to Find
Sources are the materials researchers gather to support their work, such as books, articles, original works, analyses, reviews, data, or evidence. Sources may be either primary (first-hand) or secondary (second-hand). It is important to know which is which before citing a source in a paper. Research gains credibility and authority when it is founded on primary sources. Researchers achieve stature by gaining readersí trust. Citing secondary sources demonstrates a researcherís knowledge of other scholarsí work. Knowledge in a discipline builds upon precedent, adding new facts, data and original thinking. Disciplines vary when distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. Check with your instructor or a librarian to verify a source as either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are original documents or objects, such as an artifact or creative work. They are often one-of-a-kind or rare. They may present original thinking, new discoveries or new information collected at the time of an event. Researchers use primary sources to understand the past and to build theses or cases. Primary material may be the focus of a paper. An author may address a primary source with his or her own criticism, theory, or perspective.
Examples of Primary Sources include:
- Course materials and syllabi
- Data sets and statistics
- Dissertations and theses (when based on original research)
- Empirical studies (research based on scientific and experimental results)
- Government documents (such as "No Child Left Behind")
- Interviews, surveys and fieldwork documentation
- Laws, including statutes, regulations, proclamations, executive orders
- Learning objects
- Letters, correspondence (such as paper, email, tweets )
- Logos, symbols and signs
- Medical charts
- News reports or footage (sometimes secondary)
- Official records (such as corporate minutes, county records, certificates)
- Original works of literature or treatises
- Original works of art, music, theatre
- Proceedings from conferences, meetings and symposia
- Relics or artifacts
- Student records (such as report cards)
- Technical reports
- Tests, scales, or measuring instruments
Secondary sources are about an event or primary source. Secondary sources describe, interpret, analyze, evaluate, explain, comment on, or develop theories related to a topic. They are often written after-the-fact, with hindsight. They may merely point to primary materials. Tertiary sources, sometimes viewed as a subset of secondary, are similarly about a subject. Tertiary sources distill primary or secondary materials into publications such as dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias, almanacs, or chronologies.
Examples of Secondary (and Tertiary) Sources include:
- Almanacs and fact books (tertiary)
- Chronologies (tertiary)
- Data tables and summaries (may also be primary)
- Dictionaries and encyclopedias (tertiary or secondary)
- Digests and summaries
- Directories (tertiary)
- Handbooks, manuals, and guidebooks (tertiary or secondary)
- Histories about a topic
- Indexing and abstracting tools (tertiary)
- Journal articles (sometimes primary)
- Library catalogs (tertiary)
- Monographs (other than fiction, poetry, autobiography)
- Online databases (tertiary or secondary)
- Review articles and editorials
- Works of criticism and interpretation
How to Find Frequently Sought Sources
Use indexing and abstracting databases to find articles based on empirical studies. For example, to find empirical studies in Psychology, use PsycInfo. The PsycInfo search engine enables searching by Methodology. Similarly, search for Clinical Studies in Pubmed for medicine-related empirical research. See a complete list of these and other databases on UC Libraryís A-Z webpage.
Government, institutional, and licensed proprietary databases provide search engines to locate statistics. For example, use NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics) to find data on Education in the United States. For lists of online data resources by region,
see the UC Library's Government webpage.
Government agencies link to current and historical official government documents on their websites. Check with a librarian to locate older materials not online. For a list of online resources, see UC Library's Government webpage or a list of government resources.
Books and Monographs
Library catalogs are the best tools for finding books and monographs. At UC Berkeley, see Oskicat or Melvyl for books and monographs in the UC collection. Check WorldCat.org for books at nearby libraries and beyond. Ask a librarian for help in finding books outside the UC system.
Online image collections are increasing and expanding on the Web. The Online Archive of California is an excellent California resource. Libraries and museums hold own many images in special collections. Library catalogs point to some, but not all, image collections a library owns. See a UC librarian for assistance in finding special collections and museum resources. Streaming video, DVDs, CDs, recordings and videos are available through the UC Berkeley Media Resources Center. Commercial vendors (such as You Tube) also provide moving images, sometimes for a fee.
Tests and Scales
Many tests and scales are proprietary in nature and available only through purchase. Copyright laws restrict their distribution to non-professionals. For tests no longer under copyright restrictions, search the Oskicat or Melvyl or ask for a librarian’s assistance. Some articles and books append whole or portions of tests. The PsycTests database links to articles about psychological tests and to the tests themselves, if unrestricted. See also, Tests and Measurements.