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Research Foundations: Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Materials

Material Type

Material type is another categorization of information. A source is either a primary, secondary, or tertiary material type depending on when it was created and its purpose and scope.

It is important to understand the value in using primary, secondary and tertiary sources of information for research. Each serves a different purpose in the research process. It is not always clear how to determine the material type of a source because it can vary by academic discipline or use. This lesson will help you recognize the differences between the three material types and offer examples of each.

Primary Materials

primary sources of information

primary sources of information

Primary sources have not been critiqued, analyzed, or altered. Many primary source documents and creative works are from the time of the event. However, other primary sources, like memoirs or interviews, can exist as primary materials after the event has occurred.

Examples of primary source materials vary by discipline. In the physical and social sciences, primary sources include original research studies and data sets, like census information, in their raw, unanalyzed state. In the arts, original artwork, music, movies, and literature constitute primary sources. Historic speeches, personal letters, maps, and government documents are primary materials as well.

Secondary Materials

secondary sources of information

secondary sources of information

Secondary materials provide commentary, analysis, and discussion of a primary event, idea, or work. Written by experts, they address the subject from a historical or critical perspective.

Secondary materials may also exist as both a primary and secondary source so it can be difficult to discern the differences. For example, a newspaper article reporting on a current event would be a primary material, though an article from the same newspaper commenting on the same current event is a secondary.

Every academic discipline has secondary sources. Examples include a history book, literature criticism, subject encyclopedias, and articles that review existing research.

Tertiary Materials

tertiary sources of information

tertiary sources of information

Tertiary materials compile, index, or organize information from primary and secondary sources, often to provide an overview of a topic. This type of material rarely contains original material. Tertiary materials are usually a good source of data and facts presented with context to help you interpret a topic. They provide a broad perspective without any critique or points of view related to the topic. They may also act as a directory to other important primary or secondary sources identified in bibliography, works cited, or reference list.

Groups of authors - sometimes not identified by name – often write the content of many tertiary materials. Editors then review and organize the material before publication.

Examples of tertiary materials include abstracts, textbooks, almanacs, bibliographies, encyclopedias, dictionaries, directories or handbooks. Wikipedia is an example of a tertiary web source.