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English 200W - Reading Literature and Culture

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Texts

This is a guide to recognizing the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary texts, and how these are used in literary studies.

In literary studies, primary texts are original works of literature.

  • Macbeth and Pride and Prejudice are examples of primary texts studied in English 200. 
  • Historical documents, such as letters written by authors and contemporary newspaper reviews, may also qualify as primary texts.
  • Search the Library Catalog to find primary texts in literature.

Secondary texts are works that interpret and analyze primary texts. 

  • In literary studies, literary criticism is a form of secondary text.
  • Literary criticism presents an evaluation, explication, description, or interpretation of literary works.
  • Literary criticism is generally written by scholars in the form of academic journal articles, books, and book chapters. 
  • Book reviews written by journalists for popular media, such as broadcast, newspapers, and magazines, are not sources of criticism. 
  • Search the Library Catalog and article databases, such as the MLA Bibliography and JSTOR, to find critical studies.

Tertiary texts are works that abstract, index, organize, compile, or summarize primary and secondary texts.

  • Tertiary texts includes such publications as specialized glossaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, and indexes. 
  • Researchers generally use tertiary texts to discover primary and secondary sources.
  • Search the Library Catalog, A-Z Databases list, and Reference Collection to find tertiary sources.
  • Ask a Reference Librarian for assistance.

Librarian for English

I am your librarian for literary studies research. Please contact me to ask questions and to schedule research consultations.