Secondary Sources

I’ve noticed that librarians, like lawyers, have a language of their own.

When I get together with another library person and we are talking about textbooks, we never say textbooks, we always say secondary sources. Secondary sources?

The Collections Canada Learning Centre provides a great definition of primary and secondary sources in the context of archival research. Wikipedia also has a well worded definition:

secondary source is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere

Secondary sources involve generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information

Since a systhesis of a topic that we are researching is the best starting place, of course the organization dependent librarian loves secondary sources.

Is the nomenclature an insurmountable hurdle in librarian communication? Lawyers tend to refer to textbooks by author name: “Where is Brown on Insurance?” or worse: “Where is Brown?” Perhaps we librarians use our secret language to fight fire with fire: “Can I gather the secondary materials on insurance law for you?”


  1. Shhhhh! Next thing you know, the secret handshake and initiation ceremony will be out of the closet.

  2. In law, the terms primary and secondary sources are very useful, as the distinction between the LAW and commentary on the law is clear, based on the special status assigned to legal documents, and reinforced by daily practice. In other fields, it is less well defined, and can shift depending on the question in the mind of the reader. In history, a secondary source like a newspaper account of an election result can become a primary source, if the question is “what sort of coverage was given to elections back in…” The differences between legal and historical criteria for evidence and related issues is treated in excellent detail in a work I’m constantly recommending to Slawyers: Duranti’s Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, and in addition Heather MacNeil’s Trusting Records: Legal Historical and Diplomatic Perspectives is fundamental.

  3. When talking to users, I almost always refer to secondary sources — textbooks, CLE binders, articles — by those words…or even just “commentary”. Then each person walks away knowing what the other meant. There’s no confusing “commentary” with “caselaw”.