What are secondary sources? Read this lesson to learn about these materials.
You’ll also find out how to determine whether or not a source is secondary.
Definition of Secondary Sources
We’ve all seen a movie or read a book that we just had to tell our friends about. We might begin by saying simply, ‘it was a great movie’ or ‘that was the best book I ever read’. We go on to say what it was that we thought was great about the movie or why that book was the best one we ever read. In doing so, we offer our opinions, observations and interpretations of scenes, characters, plot, word choices or anything else that struck us as we watched or read. Because we are telling our friends about the movie or the book (the original materials), and they are not watching or reading it for themselves, we are a secondary source.Secondary sources are second-hand information.
They may contain information that has been interpreted, commented on, analyzed or processed at a distance from the original. Secondary sources are usually produced after an event has occurred.
Function of Secondary Sources
The function of secondary sources is to interpret original materials. Secondary sources are neither better nor worse than original materials; they are simply different.
The source of the information you use is not as important as its quality and its relevance for your particular purpose.The best secondary sources are those that have been published most recently. If you use a secondary source that was published decades ago, it is important to know what current scholars have written on the topic as well as any criticism they have made about the earlier work or its approach to the topic.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Secondary Sources
There are advantages to using secondary sources. First and foremost, secondary sources are often less costly and time-consuming than collecting original materials. Disadvantages exist as well. There may not be enough secondary sources on your topic.
The quality of the available information could also be a problem. The original material may have been analyzed or interpreted by someone without the necessary expertise. There is also a chance that a secondary source could be outdated.
Examples of Secondary Sources
All of these sources can be classified as secondary sources:
- A column in the Op/Ed section of a newspaper that comments on an election or analyzes a controversial issue in an election
- A newspaper article on campaign finance reform
- A book on the anti-slavery struggle
- An editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech
- A biography of the Dalai Lama or Rosa Parks or your great grandmother
- A literary criticism of any literary work, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.
- A law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
- The opinions or studies of others that analyze the effectiveness of a constitutional amendment in an argument essay about the need to pass a certain amendment
- History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, movie and book reviews
These are all secondary sources because they are produced after the fact by someone who did not participate in the event, discovery or creation of the information that is being analyzed or interpreted.
Ultimately, all source materials must be assessed critically. When evaluating sources, the following questions can help you to determine whether or not a source is secondary:
- How does the author know the details? Was the author present at the event or the creation or discovery of the information? If not, the source is a secondary source.
- Where does this information come from: accounts or works written by others? If the information is based on works written by others, it is a secondary source.
Remember, secondary sources are second-hand information. The function of secondary sources is to interpret original materials.
Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. If you see a movie or read a book and then tell your friends what you thought was great about that movie or that book, you are a secondary source.Secondary source materials can also be articles in newspapers, popular magazines, or scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research or literary work. You can determine whether or not a source is secondary by asking whether or not the author was present at the event or the creation or discovery of the information.
You can also classify the source as secondary if information comes from accounts or works written by others.