Basic Terms and Terminology Relating to Identifying Primary Sources in Various Media

  • A primary source: A primary source is a text that is directly written by an author; it is a first hand original document. Primary sources also include original photos, original pieces of art and sculpture, and original artifacts. Primary sources come directly from the "horse's mouth" so to speak.
  • A secondary source: A secondary source, unlike a primary source, comes from a primary source and it is a second hand document that relates back to some primary source.
  • A tertiary source: A tertiary source, unlike a primary and secondary source, is third hand information that is derived from secondary sources, and so on.

Primary Sources

Primary sources, secondary and tertiary sources are used in academic scholarly texts.

A primary source is a text that is directly written by an author; it is a first hand original document. It comes directly from the "horse's mouth" so to speak. A secondary source, unlike a primary source, comes from a primary source and it is a second hand document that relates back to some primary source. A tertiary source, unlike a primary and secondary source, is third hand information that is derived from secondary sources, and so on.

As you can probably imagine, the further from the source the less reliable, complete and accurate is the information. In academic scholarly writing, primary sources are strongly encouraged and secondary and tertiary, and even further removed sources with, sometimes, many degrees of separation and many steps away from the primary source, are strongly discouraged unless a primary source cannot be located. The greater the degree of separation from the primary source, the more changed and less valuable the message of the original text or work is.

Take a look at some primary sources in literature, art, photography and historical documents:

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