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Critical Assessment of Primary and Secondary Sources

This LibGuide is intended to work through the process of analyzing and assessing primary and secondary sources.

What is an archive?

 An archives is a place where people go to find primary source information.
Formats represented in a modern archival repository include photographs, films, video and sound recordings, computer tapes, video and optical disks, as well as the more traditional unpublished letters, diaries, and other manuscripts.  Researchers use these records both for their administrative value and for purposes other than those for which they were created.
 Archivists preserve and provide access to the records that have been identified as having potential enduring value.  This involves identifying and selecting records, then arranging those records to make them usable and housing them in acid-free materials in order to aid in their long-term preservation. Archivists often create guides to collections to provide information about the scope of the records as well as contextual information about the why, how and by whom they were created.

Differences between libraries and archives

Archives Libraries

have unique materials, thereby providing distinctive points or view or rare information

published materials, therefore multiple copies are usually available in various locations 

organize collections by creator, which allows for a different perspective than a third party author

materials are organized by subject, so everything on the same topic is put together making it easier to figure out what may or may not be helpful to your research 

closed stacks, which means you are not able to browse or casually look through what is on the shelves

open stacks, which means you can go to the shelves directly and select what you would like to use for your research 

non-circulating materials, which means you are not able to take originals home. You either have to do all your research on site, or make copies of materials if the archives allows copies

circulating materials, which means you can take the items with you (unless they are reference items). You are able to find materials on a "time crunch" and use them where it is convenient for you 

have primary sources

traditionally have secondary and tertiary sources

What are primary and secondary sources

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

Secondary sources are often used to understand primary sources.

Below is a video that explains the differences between primary and secondary sources if you would like additional information on this topic. 

But what about tertiary sources?


I can guarantee that you've all used tertiary sources, you just didn't know that's what you were using!

A tertiary source provides compiled information: they draw their content from primary and secondary sources, and present it to you usually in a brief and concise format. Things like encyclopedias, textbooks, guidebooks, factbooks, chronologies, and indexes are all recognized as being tertiary sources.

Tertiary sources are an excellent way for you to obtain the background on a topic, idea or event, and to begin figuring out what primary and secondary sources you will need to use for your research. However, tertiary resources are usually not considered acceptable for your works cited and/or bibliography, and professors will specify if there are tertiary resources they allow for your research papers. 


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Claire T. Carney Library
Room 237
285 Old Westport Road
Dartmouth, MA 02747