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Research skills tutorial

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3.3 Primary, secondary and tertiary resources

You may need to find different types of resources depending upon what type of information you are looking for.

Sometimes you may need to find a basic overview of a topic to give you some background information, or you may require a first-hand account to give you a clear understanding of an event.

Primary, secondary and tertiary resources provide different types of information.


Primary Sources

Primary Sources of information are first hand accounts and may include:

  • Letters, diaries and journals
  • Printed materials written at the time of the event in question, including books, newspaper reports and newsletters
  • Films and video, audio recordings, pictures, photographs
  • Autobiographies, biographies and memoirs
  • Census information, medical records
  • Minutes and records of organisations, event programs
  • Contracts, certificates and reports, including research reports
  • Opinion polls and surveys
  • Oral testimony - spoken accounts, speeches, interviews, tales, myths, ballads, songs, rhyming games etc.
  • Artefacts [sic] or relics - can include physical sites, printed materials, tools and furniture etc.
  • Web pages, e-mails, Usenet messages, bulletin board messages etc.

Burns, Robert 2000, Introduction to Research Methods, 4th edn, Pearson Education, French's Forest.

University of Maryland (2013) Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources, accessed 9 September 2013 from URL:

Secondary Sources

A secondary source utilises the primary information reported in another source and may include:

  • Books, including textbooks, encyclopedias and quoted materials written about the topic.
  • Journal articles and newspaper articles written about the topic.
  • Any other source that reports what someone else has done or seen.

Cohen, Louis, Manion, Lawrence & Morrison, Keith 2000, Research Methods in Education 5th edn, Routledge, New York.


Tertiary sources

These provide an overview and distillation of primary and secondary resources. They include reference sources such as:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Textbooks
  • Reviews
  • Biographical sources
  • Fact books
  • Almanacs.


They can be used as a starting point.


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