Source Types, Librarians, Teachers, and our Family Archive


Introducing students to a variety of source materials while being transparent about the advantages and challenges of tertiary, secondary and primary resources is a challenge. Each of these types of sources has a part to play in research and understanding a topic.

As a school librarian, I considered myself a tertiary source.  Tertiary resources, general overviews including encyclopedias (even Wikipedia), dictionaries, resource lists, and librarians, are a good place to start.  They provide general information, definitions, and pointers for where to go next. My job was helping students and teachers find information and understand where it came from.  Matching questioners to information, making it clear where that information came from, but also sometimes helping a student read and interpret what they found.

The teacher's role could be viewed as a secondary source. A teacher must understand and plan what they will teach before beginning a "unit" in science or social studies. They know what they want their students to learn. Secondary sources include movies, books, articles and many speeches. A secondary source is often a narrative, telling a story or explaining something. The author of a secondary source (like the teacher) understands a topic and explains what they think is most important.

Most secondary sources, books, articles and classrooms will include primary sources to illustrate and support the explanation or narrative. A lesson on botany may include selected experiments so students will directly experience important facts by, for instance growing plants in a dark box or in a bright window. A history lesson will include photographs and documents illustrating parts of the narrative, such as an image of the Declaration of Independence during a lesson about the signers of that document.

Without primary sources, the root of information, there would be no secondary source narrative nor tertiary source overview. Something had to happen and be documented first. But piecing together the thread from primary sources and weaving history (or a scientific breakthrough) is a challenge.  This isn't something that can be done in a two or three week unit or for a holiday "project." Students should learn to interpret primary sources, but that isn't where their research can begin!

I have the honor of digitizing my mom's archive. There is a tremendous amount of information in the pictures and letters. While photographing these documents my mom is often able to identify players, tell stories and explain where and even why things are as they are. I try to take notes and include them in the files.  However I haven't yet tried to find a big picture or narrative. If I stopped and really worked on one picture or group of pictures, I would never figure out what was there. So as of now, this "archive" is raw, mostly uninterpreted primary source material. Maybe later this year I will start figuring out where to go from here.