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Basic Information Literacy: Research Materials

Types of Material

When you make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. 

Context Matters. Different fields may look at the types of information a little differently.  When in doubt, check with your professor!

Information in this section provided by Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries

Primary Sources:  Because it is in its original form, the information in primary sources has reached us from its creators without going through any filter. We get it firsthand. Here are some examples that are often used as primary sources:

  • Any literary work, including novels, plays, and poems
  • Breaking news
  • Diaries
  • Advertisements
  • Music and dance performances
  • Eyewitness accounts, including photographs and recorded interviews
  • Artworks
  • Data
  • Blog entries that are autobiographical
  • Scholarly blogs that provide data or are highly theoretical, even though they contain no autobiography
  • Artifacts such as tools, clothing, or other objects
  • Original documents such as tax returns, marriage licenses, and transcripts of trials
  • Websites, although many are secondary
  • Buildings
  • Correspondence, including email
  • Records of organizations and government agencies
  • Journal articles that report research for the first time (at least the parts about the new research, plus their data)

Secondary Source: These sources are translated, repackaged, restated, analyzed, or interpreted original information that is a primary source. Thus, the information comes to us secondhand, or through at least one filter. Here are some examples that are often used as secondary sources:

  • All nonfiction books and magazine articles except autobiography
  • An article or website that critiques a novel, play, painting, or piece of music
  • An article or web site that synthesizes expert opinion and several eyewitness accounts for a new understanding of an event
  • The literature review portion of a journal article

Tertiary Source: These sources further repackage the original information because they index, condense, or summarize the original. 

Typically, by the time tertiary sources are developed, there have been many secondary sources prepared on their subjects, and you can think of tertiary sources as information that comes to us “third-hand.” Tertiary sources are usually publications that you are not intended to read from cover to cover but to dip in and out of for the information you need. You can think of them as a good place for background information to start your research but a bad place to end up. Here are some examples that are often used as tertiary sources:

  • Almanacs
  • Dictionaries
  • Guide books
  • Survey articles
  • Timelines
  • Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedias, including Wikipedia
  • Most textbooks

Tertiary sources are usually not acceptable as cited sources in college research projects because they are so far from firsthand information. That’s why most professors don’t want you to use Wikipedia as a citable source: the information in Wikipedia is far from original information. Other people have considered it, decided what they think about it, rearranged it, and summarized it – all of which is actually what your professors want you, not another author, to do with information in your research projects.

What to use in your research?

The resources you need for your academic research can vary widely depending on your assignment, chosen topic, knowledge on the subject, and window of time. 

Research requires a plan, but is often not linear, meaning you may need to adjust and redefine your plan throughout the research process.  This page describes some commonly used research materials.

Asking for assistance at the Reference Desk on the main (2nd) floor of the library can help you through any step of the research process.  Also feel free to email or call -- a friendly librarian is always happy to help!

Material Formats

Format does not equal type. 

  • A book can be a primary, secondary, or tertiary type of research material depending on the content and the context. 
  • However, format does give us valuable information about the material we are looking at.

The books and e-books used for undergraduate and graduate research are not the fiction novels that most people think of when talking about books. (The big exception being the study of literature!) 

For most research using books you will be looking at non-fiction books, which may include:

  • Reference Books: encyclopedias, handbooks, guides
  • Academic/Scholarly Books: These books have many of the same characteristics as academic/scholarly articles including being written by an authority in their field, being peer-reviewed, and including references/citations.  These books may also contain a collection of essays/articles on a selected topic.
  • Popular Non-Fiction: These books have many of the same characteristics of magazines or newspapers.  They are written by journalists or non-experts outside of their field about topics that would interest the general public.  They may include references, but are not peer-reviewed.

Journal articles are the standard for most undergraduate and graduate research. 

These articles written by researchers and practitioners with authority in the paper's subject area. Usually the articles are peer reviewed. Peer review is the process an article goes through before being published. Other experts and researchers will evaluate an article to determine its validity before the article is published in a scholarly journal. Peer reviewed sources may also be called scholarly/refereed/juried. The intended audience is usually other researchers, experts, or students.  These articles will include references in the form of in-text citations and/or a bibliography or works cited list.




Popular articles in magazines and newspapers are often useful when writing about current events or by those studying communications, marketing, and journalism.  These have features meant to entertain, inform, or persuade and do not include in-depth analysis or references. Articles are usually short and written by journalists who are not experts. They use common language and are intended for anyone, not those in a research or scholarly field.




These feature current trends, news, or research in a specific field. They will have some research articles as well as statistics and professional forecasts. They're usually written by experts but can also feature journalists. The audience is usually experts or those working within the specific field.




Websites can include anything from free databases of information, to government sites, to news or non-profit organization sites. Websites need to be one of the most highly vetted resources as they can range from academic, to popular, to professional.  They can provide a great wealth of information, however, tend to be one of the sources that may also contain the greatest amount of wrong or misleading information. Proceed with caution.