What is a Secondary Resource?

Deborah Walker

A secondary resource is a document or other type of media that discusses or cites an original, or primary, resource. Primary resources may include the original, uninterpreted raw data or statistics from original research projects, an historic letter, an interview, a court decision, an original map, a poem, or some other first-hand information. Secondary resources include anything that makes use of preexisting information such as textbooks, journal articles, magazines, websites, documentaries, newspapers, or other materials that contain primary resources. The context in which the resource is used often determines if it is a primary or secondary resource. Style guides, such as those published by the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Modern Language Association (MLA), require secondary resources to be cited differently from one another.

Newspapers are an example of a secondary resource.
Newspapers are an example of a secondary resource.

Secondary resources analyze, synthesize, summarize, generalize, criticize, interpret, or evaluate primary resource material. For example, a secondary resource may provide an analysis and interpretation of the data in a research study, or a social science textbook may summarize historical events or philosophies. A secondary resource can develop a new idea or a different way of thinking by interpreting or generalizing information found within a primary resource. Secondary resources can also summarize and critique a primary resource. For example, a critic may summarize a new movie and write a critique about the movie for a newspaper column or a website.

Secondary resources analyze, synthesize, summarize, generalize, criticize, interpret, or evaluate primary resource material, such as a movie.
Secondary resources analyze, synthesize, summarize, generalize, criticize, interpret, or evaluate primary resource material, such as a movie.

Distinguishing between a primary resource and a secondary resource can become a matter of interpretation. It is not always possible to immediately know if the resource should be classified primary or secondary. For example, a writer could use a quote attributed to George Washington that he or she found in a history textbook; on the surface, this would most likely qualify as a secondary source. If a writer used that same quote from George Washington, but found it in an original letter that George Washington wrote to his wife, however, the quote would be derived from a primary source.

A quote from a letter President George Washington wrote could be considered coming from a primary source, but if that same quote came from a textbook, it would be a secondary source.
A quote from a letter President George Washington wrote could be considered coming from a primary source, but if that same quote came from a textbook, it would be a secondary source.

When doing research for a term paper, report, article, or academic thesis, one can locate primary and secondary resources by doing a keyword search. To find a primary resource, pair you research subject or keyword with the following terms: documents, letters, personal narratives, early works, and diaries. To find a secondary resource, pair a keyword with these terms: summary, evaluation, review, critique, or analysis. Neither of these word lists should be considered exhaustive.

Magazines can serve as a secondary resource.
Magazines can serve as a secondary resource.

APA or MLA styles require their own unique citation form. The way in which a secondary source is cited depends upon where that source is found. A video is cited differently than a book, which is cited differently than a magazine or scholarly journal.

Social media can serve as a secondary resource for certain topics.
Social media can serve as a secondary resource for certain topics.

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