Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are material that has taken a primary source and summarized it, analyzed it, combined it, rephrased it and interpreted it.  It is at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review.  A secondary source may try to persuade or argue a position.  Much of what you find as sources will be secondary.

Examples:  Reports, summaries, textbooks, speeches, articles, encyclopedias and dictionaries

          Book:  "Civil War Dictionary"  Book "Retracing the Past"                                                                           


 Primary Source vs. Secondary Source Examples 


Primary Source

Secondary Source



Original artwork

Article critiquing the piece of art


Architectural drawing

Book on architectural style and design



Interpretation of geologic features and history for a given location


Poster, computer-generated graphics, photographs

Book critiquing the photographs and graphics



Review of the song


Explorer’s diary

Book about exploration


Newspaper from 1920

Article describing how reporting of the news has changed over time



Criticism on a particular genre of poetry

Political Science

Government documents (i.e. text of laws)

Article reviewing a law and its effects on the citizenry.


Tablets, ancient manuscripts


Interpretation of the meaning of document created in the ancient world


Original journal article

Biological Abstracts

Theatre Arts

Videotape of a performance

Biography of a playwright

Primary Sources                                     Secondary Sources

Person                                                      Reference Material

Interview                                                  Book

E-mail contact                                           DVD

Event                                                       Encyclopedia

Discussion                                                Magazine article

Debate                                                     Newspaper article

Community Meeting                                 Video Tape

Survey                                                     Audio Tape

Artifact                                                     Television broadcast

Can a source be both primary and secondary at the same time?

From one vantage point, books are the classic secondary source:  scholars use primary source materials such as letters and diaries to write books, which are in turn secondary sources. Books can also be a rich source of primary source material.  In some instances, as in the case of published memoirs, autobiographies, and published documents, it is easy to determine when a book functions as a primary source.  But even secondary source materials can function as primary sources. 

Book:  Eminent Victorians

Take, for instance, Lytton Strachey’s famous history of nineteenth century England, Eminent Victorians, first published in 1918.  On the one hand, Eminent Victorians is a secondary source, a history of English society and culture in the 1800s based on Strachey’s research and analysis of primary sources.  On the other hand, a present-day scholar could treat Eminent Victorians itself as a primary source, using it to analyze the mores and attitudes of Lytton Strachey and the early twentieth century English intelligentsia of which he was a part.

Scientific Information Literacy Modules

Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
Unit 3:  Information Formats
Unit 4:  Defining Search Terms
Unit 5:  Conducting a Literature Review
Unit 6:  Science Information Sources

History Information Literacy Modules