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American Literature: Primary Sources

Primary Vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to the original idea/event.  These types of sources may include creative works, first hand or contemporary accounts of events, published results of empirical observation or studies and other forms that may form the basis for further research.



·         Novels, plays, poems, films, works of art, works of popular culture

·         Diaries, personal letters, autobiographies, memoirs, speeches

·         Government documents, patents

·         Data sets, technical reports, experimental research results


Secondary Sources

Secondary sources analyze, review or restate information in a primary source or other secondary source.  Even sources providing facts or descriptions about events are considered secondary if they are not based on direct observation or participation.  Secondary sources often rely on other secondary sources to reach results.  Secondary sources provide the principle analytical sources of primary sources.



·         Literary criticism

·         Biographies

·         Scholarly articles that don’t present new experimental research results

·         Review articles and literature reviews

·         Historical studies


Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources synthesize information gathered from other sources to provide an overview of a topic, event or idea.  Tertiary sources often provide information in a convenient, easily digestible format.  Tertiary sources are excellent for learning about a topic but are typically not recommended as support for a research paper or essay.



·         Encyclopedias

·         Wikipedia

·         Almanacs

·         Textbooks



Information adapted from The University of Pennsylvania Libraries Penn Online Research Tutorial

Primary vs Secondary Word Document

Primary Sources Online

Primary Sources Online Handout

A word document version of the handout and the information listed above.

Evaluating Sources