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CJ 497/498 Criminal Justice Research Methods/Senior Seminar: What are Primary/Secondary Sources?

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary sources are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events or research you are studying. They are written from the perspective of a participant or observer of those events or research. Examples include:

  • diaries
  • letters/correspondence
  • photographs
  • memos
  • newspaper articles
  • government records 
  • financial records
  • advertisements
  • receipts
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • memoirs & autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • narratives or personal narratives
  • emails
  • speeches
  • meeting minutes
  • artifacts (material culture)

Examples of Secondary Sources

Secondary sources often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. They are second hand accounts of historical events or research, usually published after the events, time period, or research being studied was published. Examples include:

  • textbooks
  • journal articles
  • histories
  • biographies

Secondary sources look beyond a particular event or artifact and can broaden your perspective and research. They can also provide historical perspective based on other events that have taken place since the original event or work.

Examples of Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources contain information that has been compiled from primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources include:

  • almanacs
  • chronologies
  • dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • directories
  • guidebooks
  • indexes
  • abstracts
  • manuals
  • textbooks


Understanding Primary Sources

According to the American Historical Association, when determining if a source is primary or secondary:

1. Consider when the source (e.g. document, letter, account) was made or created. In particular, was the source created at the time of an event? Does the source document the author's perspective? Or, does the source, for instance, describe the business of a person, organization, or government? 

2. Consider to what time period the source refers. Primary sources usually concern the contemporary period. However, they may also be an author's own account or recollection of earlier experiences. Thus, contemporary accounts in diaries and correspondence are primary sources as are interviews, memoirs, and oral histories made after the fact.

The day-to-day paper-trail and artifacts created by people and organizations going about their daily life are usually primary sources. We all produce primary sources every day (e.g. emails, social media posts, shopping receipts, etc.).

When in Doubt

If you are not sure if a given source is primary or secondary for the purposes of your research project, ask your instructor. There are many gray areas and your instructor's interpretation will be required. 

Chat with a Librarian!

Test your Understanding!

This tutorial was designed by the Ithaca College Library to test (and improve!) your ability to identify primary and secondary sources. You will be presented with a number of scenarios and asked to classify sources as primary or secondary for the purposes of that situation. There is no grade for the test, it is for your benefit and understanding. 


If you are experiencing problems with our guides and databases, please contact ProfessorJanet S. Ward,, Assistant Director of the Library and Web Services Librarian.