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Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Informational sources can be classified roughly into three groups that reflect their originality. The grouping of informational sources does not automatically assign items in each group a greater or lesser value. Instead, each group has its own ‘niche’ that corresponds with the steps of the research process and the depth of research required for a paper. This will be explained towards the end of this page.


Let’s explore these three levels of analysis…


Primary Sources

Primary sources consist of works that are the closest to original thoughts or first-hand accounts of events. Primary sources rarely evaluate or analyze events or information, they simply seek to document it. Primary resources are normally the first published accounts of an idea, event, or research project. Essentially, these sources share new information.


General examples of primary resources would be:


  • Historical artifacts
  • Sacred texts in their original languages
  • First-hand written and oral accounts of an event
  • Peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Newspaper articles written at the time of an event
  • Video recordings
  • Autobiographies
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music


An example of a primary source pertinent to seminary students is a recording of a sermon. When the sermon itself is the subject of research, that sermon is a primary source.


Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are harder to define, but are generally speaking sources that comment upon, analyze, or interpret an original work of information. They are secondary in that these sources are ‘once removed’ from the original source. Secondary sources do not constitute ‘evidence’ of something or original thought. Again, the definition of secondary sources depends on the context; what is deemed a primary source in an undergraduate class assignment might be considered a secondary source in a graduate level course.


General examples of secondary sources would be:


  • Biblical commentaries and criticisms
  • Magazine articles
  • Journal articles that critique the work of others rather than present original ideas
  • Biographies (not autobiographies)
  • Accounts of events written a substantial time after the event has occurred
  • Historical studies
  • Literature reviews


An example of a secondary source pertinent to seminary students is “The Hand and the Road: The Life and Times of John A. MacKay”, a biography of John MacKay. A biography is a secondary account of one’s life, unlike an autobiography which would constitute a primary source.


Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources have the most fluid definition of the three levels of analysis. Generally speaking, tertiary resources analyze and synthesize information about a given topic. In other words, tertiary sources are information about information. They summarize the research on a particular topic in a user-friendly form or list primary and secondary sources. In the research process, tertiary sources should be your fist step for gathering information about a topic.


General examples of tertiary sources would be:


  • Bibliographies, indexes, and abstracts
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Websites of general interest
  • Wikipedia
  • Textbooks


An example of a tertiary source pertinent to seminary students is “Women and Women’s Issues in North American Lutheranism: a Bibliography”.


The ‘Niches’ of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Level of Analysis

‘Niche’ and/or Corresponding Step in Research Process*

Primary Advanced level of research, often graduate level work
Secondary Intermediate to advanced research, secondary sources often synthesize and critique the ideas, themes, and findings of primary resources
Tertiary Used in Initial fact-finding of research, often compiles information resources about a given topic (like a bibliography)


*It should be noted that what constitutes a primary source in an introductory course may not correspond to a primary source in an advanced course.


For example, an introductory study of the theological themes in the Gospel of John would consider the English translations of the Gospel of John a primary source. An advanced course dealing with these same themes would consider the Johanine text(s) in the original Greek as a primary source.

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