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HUMA 500: Critical Methods in the Humanities (UNH Durham)

To support Nicole Ruane's class

Primary & Secondary Sources

In general, there are three types of resources or sources of information: primary, secondary, and tertiary.  It is important to understand these types and to know what type is appropriate for your coursework prior to searching for information.

It's sometimes difficult to distinguish among these three types and they do vary by discipline and subject..

  1. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based; for example,
    • original works (written, spoken, recorded, visual) – poems, diaries, court records, interviews, surveys, polls, newsreel footage, newspaper articles about events, art works, statistical information, and original research/fieldwork; and
    • original research published in scholarly/academic journals
  2. Secondary sources are those that describe, critique, or analyze primary sources; for example:
    • books and articles that interpret, review, or synthesize original research/fieldwork
    • sometimes reference materials – dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks
    • review articles in the sciences and social sciences
  3. Tertiary sources are those used to organize and locate secondary and primary sources. Can also be compilations or highly distilled summaries that offer factual representation rather than viewpoints or critiques.
    • Indexes – provide citations that fully identify a work with information such as author, titles of a book, article, and/or journal, publisher and publication date, volume and issue number, and page numbers
    • Abstracts – summarize the primary or secondary sources
    • Databases – are online indexes that usually include abstracts for each primary or secondary resource, and may also include a digital copy of the resource
    • sometimes reference materials – dictionaries, encyclopedias, chronologies, directories

Types of Articles

When searching for articles, know what type of periodical it is.  This is because each type has its own purpose, intent, audience, etc. 


  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Research Journals