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Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Primary Sources

Deposition of Abigail Williams


"Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience." 

-(Library of Congress)

Image: Deposition of Abigail Williams, May 1962

Primary sources in the humanities are documents or artifacts created during the time period being studied or by individuals reflecting on their involvement in an event.

Examples of primary sources:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine or other periodical articles written during the time period
  • Government and legal documents
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Images, including photographs and drawings
  • Sound and video recordings
  • Archival records, logs, or data
  • Ledgers
  • Artifacts

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources analyze or interpret a primary source or sources. Because they often have extensive bibliographies, they can be helpful in locating primary sources. 

The table below gives examples of primary and secondary sources in different disciplines within the humanities.

  Primary Secondary
Art The Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh Famous works of art in popular culture: a reference guide by Joy Sperling.
History The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank Anne Frank: the biography by Melissa Müller; translated by Rita and Robert Kimber.
Literature "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift

"Jonathan Swift on the lives of the poor native Irish as seen through “A Modest Proposal” and other of his writings" by Patrick Welch (published in Journal of the History of Economic Thought)

Political Science U.S. Constitution The Evolving Constitution: Essays on the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court edited and with a foreword by Norman Dorsen 
Theater Hamlet by William Shakespeare

"Reading Hamlet upside down: the Shakespeare criticism of Natsume Sōseki" by Todd Andrew Borlik (published in the journal Shakespeare)


Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources presents summaries or condensed versions of materials usually with references to primary or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject.  

Examples of Tertiary Sources:

  • Textbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias