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Types of Sources


level of origin graphic defining primary, secondary and tertiary sources

Sources can be defined at least two different ways. When people use the phrase "types of sources" they may be referring to the:

  1. Level or distance from the original source of information (primary, secondary or tertiary)
  2. Format of the information source (book, article, movie, blog, etc.)

This guide will clarify both types of definitions. Which source is the best? It depends! Each source has unique characteristics which need to be considered when making the decision. Most college instructors and many high school teachers will insist on academic or scholarly sources, but it depends on the assignment.

Note: words in red or hot linked are included in the glossary. See a similar graphic.

Your topic and research question or thesis statement will determine which resources are best. If you are struggling to find information in scholarly sources, but can find information on the open web, that is a sign you need to re-evaluate your topic or research question. See the page Selecting Sources in this guide or the handout "What Sources Should I Use" below for more help with this issue.

You may find these handouts helpful:

A primary source is the original source of information on a topic. The source is usually created at the time of study. What defines a primary resource varies slightly with each discipline. Typically, artifacts, diaries and manuscripts, autobiographies or memoirs, photographs, audio files of interviews before editing, blogs and vlogs published and produced by the creator at the time of an event are considered to be primary information sources. See the page about primary sources in this guide for more information about primary sources.

Some information sources may be available in audio or video. Most books and articles are available either in print or online. Books may be available in paperback, hardback, large print or other types of editions or formats. The format and edition of an information source may affect whether the item is considered to be a primary source (the original source of information or an exact replica) or not.  However it is usually difficult to tell when something is an exact replica of the original.

Sources can be defined as primary, secondary and tertiary levels away from an event or original idea. Researchers may want to start with tertiary or secondary sources for background information. Learning more about a topic will help most researchers make better use of primary sources.

Information sources are usually organized by type. Books, journal articles, blogs, photographs, data sets, patents, are all types of sources commonly used for research. See the Identifying Primary Sources page in this guide for more information about various types of sources.

Medieval Women book coverBiblical Archaeology journal coverRaising the American Flag photo

In any case, a source may be in print or some type of physical format, or it may be electronic. Some types of formats are always electronic, but formats that are physically available, such as books, are almost always also electronically available.

In other words, to say you have an article, song or movie does not imply you have an article in print, a CD of a song or a DVD of a movie. All these formats are available in print and digital versions, and you, the researcher, must decide which method of delivery you prefer or which is most readily available at time of need.

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What are some reasons to contact a librarian?

‚Äč      To find the best resources for your topic
      To discuss strategies and develop skills for searching article databases and the library catalog
      To identify and locate primary source materials


If a librarian is not available, you may also seek assistance from other library staff during library hours who will refer you to the appropriate librarian or department as necessary. 

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