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College Writing: Places and Perspectives

Exploring Secondary Sources

Explore Secondary Sources

The function of secondary sources is to interpret, analyze, critique and comment on primary sources. Thus, they can be described as at least one step removed from the event or original work. Secondary source materials are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

    Examples of Secondary Sources: 

  • Articles critiquing or reviewing a performance, piece of art, or literature
  • Critiques of research
  • Literature reviews
  • Biographies
  • Articles or books about a topic, especially when written by people not directly involved.
  • Essay on a treaty or topic of history
  • Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).

Examples of Secondary Sources by Subject Discipline

Discipline   Secondary Source
Art   Article critiquing the piece of artwork, e.g. an article comparing multiple of Kahlo's paintings
Business   A review of a company or industry, e.g. the coffee shop industry
History   A book on the topic, e.g. a book on the Feminist Movement
Literature   An article or book critiquing the book or author, e.g. an article analyzing Octavia Butler's writing

Political  Science

  An analysis of the law and its impact on the country, e.g. a documentary on the impacts of the ERA


A book on a general science, e.g. a book on small mammals
Social or Behavioral Sciences   A literature review of several studies on a topic, e.g. a literature review confidence and academic success
Theater   A biography of the political activist, e.g. Mahatma Gandhi 

A source can be primary or secondary depending on how it is being used. Often newspapers are considered secondary sources as journalists report, analyze, and interpret events and the experience of others. Newspapers can also be used as primary sources. If you are researching how American attitudes on welfare spending have changed during the past twenty years, newspaper editorials can serve as primary sources of public opinion.

Librarians and your instructor can help you identify primary and secondary sources for your projects.