By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist
I’m going to make this blog entry an exercise in making the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary resources more confusing. Bear with me, it’s to make a point that this concept is confusing to students for a reason.
Scenario 1: A diary
Primary right? What if the person is using the diary because of what the person is saying about a relative? It’s second-hand information. So shouldn’t that be secondary? Is the source still primary if the person is using it in a secondary manner?
Scenario 2: A photograph
Primary, right? What if the photo is of a painting? Wouldn’t it be secondary since it’s a derivative from the painting? And what about a painting someone did from a photograph?
Scenario 3: A journal article
Secondary, right? What if the article is entirely theoretical in nature and has no citations? This can sometimes happen (although fairly rare). So is this primary or secondary?
I think this illustrated that the concept of primary/secondary/tertiary sources is quite gray in nature. It seems like trying to apply a definition based on format alone falls flat when the idea is that primary is meant to be “from the horse’s mouth.” If a diary is used for second-hand content, is it really primary? If a journal article is original theoretical work, is it really secondary? And can a work be a mix (a lit review might be secondary, but the bulk of a journal article might be primary)?
Do you think the primary concept is too gray and we should seek to define it by purpose rather than format?