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HIST 497: Seminar in Historical Research (Reconstruction - Bever)

What are Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources?

Primary sources are documents, images or artifacts that provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning an historical topic under research investigation. Primary sources are original documents created or experienced contemporaneously with the event being researched. Primary sources enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.

Secondary sources are works that analyze, assess or interpret an historical event, era, or phenomenon, generally utilizing primary sources to do so. Secondary sources often offer a review or a critique. Secondary sources can include books, journal articles, speeches, reviews, research reports, and more. Generally speaking, secondary sources are written well after the events that are being researched.

Tertiary sources are sources that identify and locate primary and secondary sources. These can include bibliographies, indexes, abstracts, encyclopedias, and other reference resources; available in multiple formats, i.e. some are online, others only in print.


What are primary resources? - UCI libraries (accessed 10/19/2011, 2011).

Why Use Reference Books?

Use reference books to:

  • Get an overview of your topic
  • Get ideas for a research paper
  • Find keywords to search with
  • Find important authors on your topic
  • Find important works on your topic

Reference works are a good place to start, but typically should not be cited in your research. The only exception is when reference works contain primary and secondary sources (like collections of documents and essays).

Why Use General Interest Books?

Use General Interest books:

  • when looking for comprehensive information on a topic
  • for in-depth argument and understanding
  • for authoritative information - they have gone through an editorial process and many that we buy are written by experts in the field
  • when you want time to read & digest information - it's still the most portable method
  • The books in Spiva Libary have been selected for you by University faculty, specifically to meet your course needs. They are continuously reviewed for relevance.
  • Books cover virtually any topic in detail, fact or fiction

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Uploaded to YouTube by on Jul 29, 2011.

Often students come in to the Library with assignments to do research in primary source materials, but find that they're not quite sure what a primary source is. This video provides a brief discussion of primary and secondary sources.

Why Use Journal Articles?

Use journal articles to find in-depth information on a specific topic.  They are usually more current than books.  Articles from academic journals are often peer reviewed.

Databases let you search for articles on your topic and will tell you in which volume of which journal it's published.

Sometimes a database will actually have a copy of the article for you to view online. This is called full-text, and it's a beautiful thing.

Other databases just tell you where to find the article, but don't have a digital copy to give you. 

Why Use Newspaper Articles?

Newspaper Articles generally:

  • convey information about a current event, incident, people, places or issues of public interest.
  • contain personal opinions on a topic

Newspapers LibGuide - help locating and searching historical newspapers available at Spiva Library.


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