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Types of Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

What's the difference?

Primary Secondary Tertiary

A primary source is the original item produced during that time.

A secondary source is considered the commentary on an event, place, person or thing. 

A tertiary source is a reference source that includes background or basic information such as: who, what, where, when

Examples: Examples: Examples: 
  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Speeches
  • Documents
  • Diaries
  • Artifacts
  • Maps
  • newspapers

Such as: The Declaration of Independence, a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Articles
  • Essays
  • Textbooks
  • Criticisms


  • Encyclopedias
  • Almanacs
  • Timelines
  • Bibliographies
  • Directories
  • Fact books, etc.

(Note: Many of these are also considered secondary sources.)


  • Museum websites
  • University archives
  • Books in the library labeled as "primary document resource"


  • NC LIVE database
  • Specific databases depending on the topic


  • Credo Reference
  • Britannica Encyclopedia
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Reference books in the library
  • Biography Databases