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Comparative Literature: Primary, secondary & tertiary sources

Primary sources

Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based.


They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation.


They are usually the first formal appearance of results in physical, print or electronic format. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.


Examples include:

  • Literary creation: novels, short stories, poems, etc.
  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study);
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
  • Diaries;
  • Internet communications on email, listservs;
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail);
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications;
  • Letters;
  • Newspaper articles written at the time;
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript);
  • Patents;
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia;
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document);
  • Speeches;
  • Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls);
  • Video recordings (e.g. television programs);
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems).
  • Web site.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are less easily defined than primary sources.

 

Generally, they are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources.

 

Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.

However, what some define as a secondary source, others define as a tertiary source. Context is everything.

 

Examples include:

  • Bibliographies (also considered tertiary);
  • Biographical works;
  • Commentaries, criticisms;
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (also considered tertiary);
  • Histories;
  • Literary criticism such as Journal articles;
  • Magazine and newspaper articles;
  • Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography;
  • Textbooks (also considered tertiary);
  • Web site (also considered primary).

Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.

 

  • Almanacs;
  • Bibliographies (also considered secondary);
  • Chronologies;
  • Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (also considered secondary);
  • Directories;
  • Fact books;
  • Guidebooks;
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources;
  • Manuals;
  • Textbooks (also be secondary).