George Mason University



An instructor may refer to or request use of primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. Here are some tips on knowing which is which.


PRIMARY SOURCES are original sources on which other research is based. Also included are research results generated by experiments, which are published as journal articles in some fields. Primary source examples include:

  • Diaries, Letters, Photographs, Autobiographies
  • Interviews (legal proceedings, personal, telephone, e-mail)
  • Original Documents ( birth certificate or trial transcript)
  • Proceedings of Meetings, Conferences and Symposia
  • Survey Research, Data Sets (polls, surveys, Census)
  • Works of Literature & Art (poetry, fiction, plays, paintings)

    SECONDARY SOURCES describe or analyze the primary sources. Secondary source examples include:

  • Biographies
  • Commentaries, Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Journal Articles, Monographs, Textbooks

    TERTIARY SOURCES list, compile, digest, or index primary or secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies
  • Handbooks, Digests, Almanacs, Directories, Manuals

    Need help? Just ask! Librarians or reference desk staff can assist you.