How to read at university

Primary and secondary sources

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All sources of information fall into two categories:

Primary information sources are created at the time of the event they relate to. They provide direct information which has not been reinterpreted or altered. Primary sources are original material which has not been previously published.

Secondary information sources are removed from the event they relate to. They provide information that has been interpreted, analysed or altered in some way.


At university, you'll need to read primary sources of information, but what is considered to be a primary source is different across different disciplines; for example, humanities subjects such as history and English literature would consider diaries, speeches and plays to be useful primary sources; social scientists and natural scientists consider original research studies to be primary sources.

Secondary sources are also subject specific: historians may consult biographies, social scientists may research from scholarly books, and natural scientists may read review articles.

Because you'll often be expected to read original (primary) sources at university, it's important you know what the primary sources are.

Activity: primary or secondary source? - 5 minutes

In this activity, you'll decide whether a source would be considered to be primary or secondary. Warning! Some sources can be primary and secondary depending on when they were written.

1. For each of the sources described in the table below, decide whether it is a primary or secondary information source. We've done the first one for you.

Source Primary Secondary
The diary of a holocaust survivor
A journal review article on stem-cell research    
A newspaper report, dated April 15 1912, on the sinking of the Titanic    
A newspaper article, dated April 15 1962, about the 50 year anniversary of the sinking    
Your course lecture notes    
Census data    
A biochemistry text book    
A biography of Winston Churchill    
An article reporting experimental results    
How did you do?

When you have made your decisions, you can check your answers below.

Recommended Further Reading

Action point:

Which primary sources will you need to read for your course? If you're not sure where to find these sources, or how to access them go and find out by asking a friendly librarian or tutor.

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