Answered By: James Whitmer
Last Updated: Jun 22, 2020     Views: 2

The main differences between the three categories of sources is how far removed they are from original events and the original interpretations of them, with primary being the closest and tertiary being the furthest:

  • Primary sources, since they contain original ideas and firsthand accounts, are often the most difficult to understand and hardest to obtain, but are also the best to use in essays and research since they contain the least amount of distortion from other people's interpretations.
  • In turn, secondary sources have filtered ideas from primary sources through another author's perspective, but they are generally easier to obtain than primary sources, and their ease of understanding depends on their intended audience. Furthermore, secondary sources can be useful in research to better understand a primary source's ideas, and they can be very helpful in essays since they can support or contradict your own interpretations or analysis.
  • Finally, tertiary sources are often the most changed from the original material's complexity since they summarize primary and secondary sources for a general audience, but they are often the easiest to obtain. However, for those same reasons, scholars often start research with tertiary sources to understand a topic but then only use primary and secondary sources in their actual essay.

For more specific information on the types of sources along with examples, please see the linked handout: