MODULE 7: Evaluating Information Sources:
Section 5 of 6, TERMINOLOGY (Part 3), page 1 of 1.

TERMINOLOGY (Part 3)

Primary Information, Secondary Information, Tertiary Information

Why know this?

Because instructors will use this terminology when making assignments. They will say things such as, "I want you to use at least three primary and four secondary sources for your paper."

The KEY ISSUE is knowing what a primary source is and understanding that anything and everything else is not a primary source. The line between secondary and tertiary sources is sometimes a blurry one, so don't get hung up trying to make it clearly defined.

COMMON MISCONCEPTION. When you hear primary, don’t think primary as in “The first place to look," e.g., a textbook, dictionary, or encyclopedia. That is virtually the opposite of what is meant. Those types of information sources must always be thought of as secondary or tertiary.

Summary of the basic concepts:

 

The summary above may be all the information you need or want right now; if so, just move on to the next section of this tutorial module.

If or when you desire more details, a more fully developed presentation of this topic is provided below.

 

PRIMARY INFORMATION

Primary means first. Primary information is pure, original, and unfiltered. Nothing has been added or taken away. To make an analogy, think of the three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—the irreducible building blocks of all other colors, and, by analogy, all information.

Think “Where did this information originate … when did it first appear?

 

Primary information says...

Examples of primary information:

  • Works of art, music, literature, or performance
    • The orchestral music The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Duka.
    • The book Brighton Rock by Graham Green.
    • The poem "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost.
    • Edward Onslow Ford's sculpture of Shelley.
    • A motion picture, performance of a play, television program, etc.
  • Historical documents
    • The Magna Charta.
    • The Mayflower Compact.
  • Autobiographies (written by the person they are about)
    • The autobiography of Mark Twain.
  • Diaries
    • The diary of Anne Frank.
  • Reports of scientific research
    • Any journal article reporting original findings, e.g., the article “Noise-improved signal detection in cat primary visual cortex via a well-balanced stochastic resonance-like procedure” by Funke, Klaus; Kerscher, Nicolas J.; Wörgötter, Florentin. From the journal European Journal of Neuroscience, September 2007, Vol. 26, Issue 5.
  • Presentation of original theories or ideas
    • The book Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein.
    • The book The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
  • Patents
    • Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone (Patent 174,465, issued March 7, 1876).
  • Letters and other correspondence
    • Thomas Jefferson’s letter, dated March 13, 1789, to Francis Hopkinson on the topic of the new Constitution.
    • An e-mail from the person or organization you are researching.
  • Eyewitness reports or records (written, recorded, or visual) of events
    • A current news report that is reporting the facts (not analysis or evaluation) of an event.
    • A radio, television, print, or in-person interview.
    • Radio reporter Herbert Morrison's eye-witness account of the Hindenburg disaster.
    • Still and moving images of the Hindenburg disaster.
    • An eyewitness account of Lou Gehrig’s Farewell to Baseball address, e.g., the July 5th, 1939 New York Times article by John Drebinger. “61,808 fans roar tribute to Gerhig; chief figure at the stadium and old-time Yankees who gather in his honor.”
  • Court transcripts or other government records
    • The court record of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
    • The Federal Bureau of Investigation file on the Hindenburg disaster.
  • The law
    • The United States Code pertaining to the laundering of monetary instruments, i.e., 18 USC Sec. 1956.
  • Corporate financial records
    • The annual report, as filed with the Securities Exchange Commission, of Harley-Davidson, Inc.
  • Speeches
    • Lou Gehrig’s Farewell to Baseball address.
    • “I have a dream,” a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Historical artifacts
    • Tools.
    • Coins.
    • Pottery.
    • Preserved or fossil plants or animals.
  • Any and every kind of original information (in any format) that comes directly from the source.
    • An advertisement, conference proceedings, reports, software, a researcher's notes, a presentation, a press release, a podcast, a survey, and so on.

 

SECONDARY INFORMATION

Secondary information sources are one step removed, both in time and by the nature of their content, from primary sources. To continue the color analogy, green is a secondary color because it is a mixture—it has been changed—it started as a primary color and had another color added to it.

Think "This is second-hand information. It may be based on fact, but is colored by a person's opinions, experiences, knowledge, and values."

Secondary information sources are...
ALWAYS removed from primary information by time.

Time-wise, secondary sources always come into existence after primary sources—sometimes shortly after, e.g., a newscaster's commentary on the day's events; sometimes a long time after, e.g., a researcher's book about the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Secondary information sources...
ALWAYS involve judgment, and therefore, change to the nature of the information.

Simple reorganization:

Secondary information may summarize the main points of, or condense the presentation of, the facts provided by primary information. It may create a timeline of events. This action involves judgment and change—moving the facts away from their original (unchanged and complete) form. No matter how objective the intentions of the creators of secondary sources are, users of this information must recognize them for what they are—secondary information sources—not primary.

  • The creator of the secondary source decides what the main points are and how to summarize them.
  • They decide which information is worthy of inclusion in the timeline and how it is presented.

Interpretation:

Most secondary sources go beyond summary to analysis. They interpret and evaluate—they impose the judgment of their creator upon the previously-unfiltered facts.

Secondary information says...

Examples of secondary information:

  • Books (other than original works of pure fiction), including biographies other than autobiographies. Remember, an autobiography is a primary source because it is written by the person it is about.
  • Articles from magazines, journals, newsletters, newspapers, etc.
  • A pamphlet, booklet, or other non-serialized publication
  • A documentary or other nonfiction motion picture or television program
  • A review or analysis of graphic or performing arts
  • An Internet site, or radio or television program providing any of the types of information described above

In some cases, sources such as textbooks or encyclopedias might be considered secondary information (rather than tertiary). The important thing to remember is that they are not primary information sources.

STUDENTS: If you are ever in doubt over the use of a particular source, the person to ask is your instructor. They will be glad to let you know if, and to what extent, certain types of sources are acceptable.

 

TERTIARY INFORMATION

Tertiary sources take primary and/or secondary information and reformat it—typically by compiling and condensing it. The chief role of tertiary information sources is to provide information in an easy-to-access format, not to evaluate its meaning. Although it is a less-than-perfect analogy, consider that the color aqua, the color of the tertiary heading, above, is a mixture of a primary color, blue, and a secondary color, green. In reality, a tertiary information source is less of a blending of a few other pieces of information, and more of a compilation of lots of information, possibly of many types.

Think “There is no new information here, just a handy collection of information from other places."

Tertiary information says...

Examples of tertiary information sources

  • Almanacs
  • Bibliographies
  • Dictionaries
  • Directories
  • Encyclopedias
  • Factbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Indexes
  • Manuals
  • Textbooks
  • An Internet site providing any of the types of information described above

In some cases, sources such as textbooks or encyclopedias might be considered secondary information (rather than tertiary). The important thing to remember is that they are not primary information sources.

STUDENTS: If you are ever in doubt over the use of a particular source, the person to ask is your instructor. They will be glad to let you know if, and to what extent, certain types of sources are acceptable.


HOW TO NAVIGATE THIS TUTORIAL:

To return home to the main tutorial page, click TROY UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES TUTORIAL.

Click a numbered book icon to go to that module.

Use the Previous | Next icons to move one page.

Click here to go to the top of this screen.
End of this screen.