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This guide contains information about American and international governments and elections.

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Sources

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Which type of information do I need?

Not all information sources are created equal for your research projects. Different types of research and writing projects will require different types of sources. Some disciplines will require you to use mostly primary sources of information. Some research or writing assignments will require secondary sources such as a book review or literature review. The following are definitions are the different types of information sources.* 

What is a primary source?

Primary sources contain first-hand information, meaning that you are reading the author’s own account on a specific topic or event that s/he participated in. Examples of primary resources include scholarly research articles, books, and diaries. Primary sources such as research articles often do not explain terminology and theoretical principles in detail. Thus, readers of primary scholarly research should have foundational knowledge of the subject area. Use primary resources to obtain a first-hand account of an actual event and identify original research done in a field. For many of your papers, the use of primary resources will be a requirement.

Examples of a primary source are:

  • Original documents such as local, state, and federal laws in their original form, diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, records, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies
  • Empirical scholarly works such as research articles, clinical reports, case studies, dissertations
  • Creative works such as poetry, music, video, photography

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, summarize, or discuss information or details originally presented in another source; meaning the author, in most cases, did not participate in the event. This type of source is written for a broad audience and will include definitions of discipline-specific terms, history relating to the topic, significant theories and principles, and summaries of major studies/events as related to the topic. Use secondary sources to obtain an overview of a topic and/or identify primary resources. Refrain from including such resources in an annotated bibliography for doctoral-level work unless there is a good reason.*

Examples of a secondary source are:

  • Annotations and interpretations of local, state, and federal laws
  • Publications such as textbooks, magazine articles, book reviews, commentaries, encyclopedias, almanacs

Tertiary Sources

A tertiary source is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. Examples are:

  • This libguide, or any research guide, published by a school, public, or academic library

*Definitions of primary and secondary sources are from the Research Process Libguide at Northcentral University Library.

Finding Primary Sources

When using a library catalog, GALILEO, or other databases to search for primary sources, you may have to look through secondary source material to find primary documents for your project.  Here are some tips to help you locate these documents quickly.

Search By Author

When searching for primary documents on a person, try using the person's name as an Author search (LastName, FirstName).  When correspondence is cataloged, the writer of the letter (your topic) is generally listed as the author of the collection. (Example: Warren, Robert Penn).  This same strategy works for organizations, too.

Important Keywords
Manuscript collections or archives of organizational records often include some of the following keywords in their titles or content descriptions.  By including these words as keywords in a search, you have a better chance of finding collections of historical documents:

collection | papers |  archives | diaries | letters | account | narrative | personal | correspondence | autobiography*

*Adapted from Primary Sources: Finding Primary Sources, Austin Peay, State University

Examples of Primary Sources

An information graphic showing examples of primary resources.

Types of Legal Primary Sources

Primary sources are the actual laws and rules issued by governing bodies that tell us what we can and cannot do.  The four primary sources are constitutions, statutes, cases, and regulations. These laws and rules are issued by official bodies from the three branches of government.

This part of the guide will show you and help navigate you through the different primary resources related to legal and legislation by federal and state governments. While the amount of information can be overwhelming, once you have generally learned how federal and state laws are made and recorded, it will make finding the information. you need much easier. 

The logo for the National Archives and Records Administration. Misson of the National Archives

"We drive openness, cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records.

Our mission is to provide public access to Federal Government records in our custody and control. Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government."

What is the purpose of the National Archives?

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept forever.

The Office of the Federal Register and the National Archives assigns citations and numbers to laws passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. This is so that the public can easily look up this information. The National Archives makes it possible for anyone to read all federal laws enacted. 

The National Archives, in the simplest terms, is one giant house for Federal records, which makes it a wealth of primary source information. It contains many collections of records that are useful for legal research, genealogy research, Census information, and much more. Like all Federal agencies, the National Archives is governed by several regulations and statutes. 

What do the National Archives have to do with the Federal Register?

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) publishes documents in the Federal Register to carry out its statutory responsibilities. These responsibilities include preservation, management, and access to Federal and Presidential records. For example, NARA publishes for public comment proposed rules

  • To set standards for electronic, audiovisual, and micrographic records
  • To announce the opening of donated historical records and Presidential materials
  • To develop design standards for Presidential libraries
  • To set copying fees and hours of operation

Taking all comments into consideration, NARA develops final regulations which are published in the Federal Register and then codified in title 36 of the CFR. NARA also publishes notices of agency records schedules for public comment as required by 44 U.S.C. 3303a.

Other documents that NARA publishes in the Federal Register include

  • Requests for comments on the strategic plan
  • Requests for comments on proposed information collection activities
  • Invitations to attend public meetings of special working groups on subjects such as space planning and electronic records*

The National Archives has a lot of information to put the Federal Register into context. The National Archives Houses many important primary documents, both in print and online. The content that is used to teach the public could be considered tertiary resources, as they are a guide to mostly primary sources. 

*From the National Archives and Records Administration website - The Federal Register and the National Archives

A photograph of the first page of the U.S. Constitution. Constitutions

Every state in the U.S. and the nation as a whole has a Constitution. A constitution is a fundamental set of principles around which all other law is derived and organized. The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the source of all government powers. The Georgia Constitution is structured similarly to the U.S. Constitution but it only governs the state. 

Constitutions are created at constitutional conventions. Delegates to these conventions work together to create a new constitution, which is then approved by the public. The U.S. Constitution was created at a convention in 1787; there has never been another U.S. constitutional convention held, but it is allowed by law. Though an entirely new constitution can only be formed from a constitutional convention, the constitution can be amended at any time. It is much more difficult to amend the U.S. Constitution because, in addition to requiring approval by 2/3 of both houses of Congress, it also requires ratification by 3/4 of the states. Even so, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times - the first 10 amendments happened at the same time and are called the "Bill of Rights."

A photography of a copy of a version of the Georgia State Constitution.

Where is the Original U.S. Constitution Located?

The U.S. Constitution is housed at the National Archives in Washington D.C. Therefore, information pertaining to the U.S. Constitution as a document will be cited and links directed to the National Archives. Original copies of The Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are also housed there and are a part of their Founding Documents Collection.


      A copy of the Georgia State Constitution

An image of the cover page of a print copy of the Code of the State of Georgia. Statutes are the formal written law passed by a legislative body. Before a law is enacted, it begins as a bill in the legislature. Both the United States Congress and the Georgia State General Assembly pass statutes. Georgia's laws are recorded in The Georgia Code

A bill can begin in either house of the legislature but must pass both to become law. It also must be approved or rejected by the executive (the U.S. President for federal laws and the state governor for state laws). A rejection is called a veto.

To approve the law, the executive must sign it. However, if he or she does not sign it, it is not rejected. After 10 days have passed, if the executive has not vetoed the law, it becomes law without his or her signature. If the executive vetoes the law, it is not doomed. The executive must return the law to the legislature with his or her reasons for objecting to it. If the law passes both houses again with a 2/3 approval in each, it becomes law despite the veto.  



Federal Laws - Public and Private Laws

Public and private laws are also known as slip laws. A slip law is an official publication of the law and is competent evidence admissible in all state and federal courts and tribunals of the United States. 

After the President signs a bill into law, it is delivered to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) where it is assigned a law number, legal statutory citation (public laws only), and prepared for publication as a slip law. Private laws receive their legal statutory citations when they are published in the United States Statutes at Large.

Prior to publication as a slip law, OFR also prepares marginal notes and citations for each law and a legislative history for public laws only. Until the slip law is published, through the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), the text of the law can be found by accessing the enrolled version of the bill.*

*From the Government Publishing Office (GPO) - Public and Private Laws

Finding Federal Statutes: A Beginners Guide

United States Statutes At Large

Regulations, also called "administrative law," are sometimes confused with statutes but they are very different. Regulations are issued by administrative agencies, which are part of the executive branch of government. That means that regulations are not decided by people who are elected by the public, but rather, people who are appointed by the president or governor. But there are rules that require regulations to go through a public notice-and-comment period before they become final. 

Regulations are issued pursuant to a statutory authority, that is, a statute was passed that directed an administrative agency to develop regulations that will elaborate upon the statute. But regulations are very useful because they often get down to the nitty-gritty details of carrying out the directives laid out in statutes. Regulations are primary law but they are not equal in weight to statutes or cases. A statute can override a regulation or a court may decide that an agency didn't have the authority to pass a regulation.


The Federal Register

The Federal Register contains all of the day-to-day operations of the federal government. It can contain: 

  • Federal agency regulations
  • Proposed Rules and Notices of interest to the public
  • Executive orders
  • Proclamations
  • Other Presidential documents
  • Administers Constitutional Amendments and the Electoral College

The Office of the Federal Register (OFR) makes all of the above viewable to the general public in its full-text form and also prepares the Federal Register for publication in partnership with the Government Publishing Office (GPO). GPO distributes the Federal Register in paper form, on microfiche, and online as PDF files.  You can also access our unofficial version of the Federal Register at*

*From the National Archives Website - About the Federal Register

Code of Federal Regulations

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) annual edition is the codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government.

The online CFR is a joint project authorized by the publisher, the National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Office of the Federal Register (OFR), and the Government Publishing Office (GPO) to provide the public with enhanced access to Government information.*

* From the GPO - Code of Federal Regulations Website

Georgia Regulations

Rules and Regulations of the State of Georgia

Additional Guides on Federal and Georgia State Regulations

How to Trace a Federal Regulation

Guide to Administrative Law

A Research Guide to the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations


Congressional Records

Since the founding of the United States, Congress has been keeping records of its daily, monthly, and congressional proceedings in some fashion, although not always formally until 1873, with the establishment of the Government Publishing Office (GPO) 

The Law Librarians of Washington D.C. have compiled an extensive guide on the United States Government and have published a very detailed history of the record-keeping of congress. Below are verbatim excerpts from their, An Overview of the Congressional Record and Its Predecessor Publications: A Research Guide, to briefly describe the history of record-keeping of the United States Congress. Thier annotation-links to their sources are in the excerpts as well. Visit their guide for the full detailed history. It is one of the best guides in explaining how Congress has kept records historically, and how they keep records today.

I have also linked how to access The Congressional Record through CSU Libraries and several government agencies. 

House and Senate Journals

Article I, section five of the Constitution of the United States provides that "each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings and from time to time publish the same." Pursuant to this clause, the Journal of the United States House of Representatives and the Journal of the United States Senate has provided legislative action proceedings for their respective bodies since 1789. The Journal of Executive Proceedings of the U.S. Senate, also published since 1789, covers Senate action on nominations and treaties submitted by the Executive Branch. 

The Register of Debates in Congress

The Register of Debates in Congress, also published by Gales and Seaton, was the first contemporaneous attempt to publish, what they claimed was, a substantially accurate report of all the leading debates and incidents of Congress.5 The Register covers the years 1824 to 1837 (the second session of the 18th Congress to the first session of the 25th Congress) and was published at the end of each congressional session. Like the Annals, which was actually compiled some ten years after the Register began, it is not a verbatim account and was often written in the third person. 

Annals of Congress

"Thus, although for the first 41 congresses (85 years) there were no official government publications that recorded congressional debate, newspaper and other commercial publishers2 did record Congressional proceedings to the extent they saw viable according to the limits on column space available, the political leanings of the editors, the limits on existing shorthand methods, and the ability to hear from the galleries or assigned floor areas.

In 1834 commercial publishers Joseph Gales and William Seaton began collecting and selectively publishing these early summaries of debates and legislative actions in a publication called the Annals of Congress4 Organized by congressional session in 42 volumes, and taking 22 years to compile and publish, the Annals are recognized as the best source for coverage of Congress during the first 18 congresses, 1789 through 1824. Funds appropriated by Congress in 1849 assisted in its production with each volume containing a separate index for House and Senate proceedings. 

In addition, the Annals includes an appendix for each Congress containing public laws and some executive reports. Records for each chamber in the Annals are organized by congressional session and are numbered consecutively by column, not by page, with two columns per page.

The Congressional Record

The Congressional Record began publication in 1873 (43rd Congress) when Congress decided that it would be more economical and satisfactory to publish its debates and proceedings under its own direction.13 Since that time, whenever Congress has been in session, the Record has been published daily by the Government Publishing Office (GPO) on newspaper quality paper. Each Congressional Record volume covers one congressional session with consecutively numbered pages. 

The legal authority for publishing the Congressional Record is found at 44 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. The Joint Committee on Printing, established in 1895 (see 44 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) has oversight of the Record and all congressional printing, but legislative authority is vested in the House Committee on House Administration and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.15

Contents of the Congressional Record

The Congressional Record contains House and Senate floor proceedings, substantially verbatim transcripts of floor debate and remarks, a notice of all bills introduced, the full text of all conference committee reports, notices of committee and Presidential actions and communications, and statements or documents submitted by members of Congress for publication. 

Non-substantive changes can be made by members before the daily edition is published and again before the hardbound permanent edition is published. The daily edition is usually available the morning after that day's proceedings. The bound edition usually takes several years to be published after a congressional session ends.

The text of bills, as passed by a chamber, are normally published in the Record, but generally, the text of Bills as introduced, reported, or enrolled for the President's signature, are not published in the Record. One exception to this is in the "Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions" area in the Senate proceedings that, since 1971, is published after a list of newly introduced bills and additional cosponsors. 

In the statements area most newly introduced Senate bills will be commented upon by their sponsors and "frequently," they are accompanied by the full text of the bill. Comments on newly introduced House bills are sometimes inserted in the Extension of Remarks section, but usually not with the text of the bill.

The text of standing committee reports and hearings are almost never printed in the Record, but the text of conference committee reports have always been printed within it, usually in the House proceedings. Conference committee reports contain the agreed decisions or text of joint House-Senate conferences on a bill. They also frequently contain detailed joint explanatory statements on the compromise text as well, and as such, are usually quite valuable in discerning legislative intent.

The Congressional Record Index

A subject index to the daily Congressional Record, formerly published biweekly, is now produced daily online and published monthly in print. The index is cumulated annually and later transferred into a bound volume index with bound citation pages covering an entire congressional session. The material in the index is organized alphabetically by subject or last name and it notes and cites the bills, remarks, letters, and other items in the Record. Not until volume 129 (1983) are dates noted in the bound index.

Electronic Links to the Congressional Register - Open Access

Congressional Record - Bound (1873 to current via Google Books - Search then Browse selected pages with some pages or whole volume parts missing and unsearchable)

Congressional Record - Bound (1873 to 1988 via Hathi Trust  Digital Library - complete page by page but many volume parts are missing -  Browse, Search, Find in Vol. Part)

Congressional Record - Bound (1873 to 1993 via Internet Archive - Search Title and Date then Browse volume parts and Find words and phrases - Magnify, Browse, Download)

Congressional Record - Bound (1873 to 1877 via Library of Congress - Browse, Print/Save images)

Congressional Record - Bound (1873 to 2001, 2005-2008 via GovInfo - Search, Adv. Search,  Browse)

Congressional Record - Daily (1989 to 1994 via - Browse only, no PDFs)

Congressional Record - Daily (1994 to present via GovInfo - Search, Adv. Search, Citation, Browse)

Congressional Record - Daily (1995 to present via - Browse, Search, Print/DL - PDF or Text)

Congressional Record Index & Predecessor Indices (1789 to 1921 via Hathi Trust - Browse, Search)

Congressional Record Index - Bound (1873 to 1993 via Internet Archive - Browse - some  indices missing)

Congressional Record Index - Bound (1983 to 1990 for bound volumes via GovInfo - Browse, Search

Congressional Record Index - Daily (1991 to current via GovInfo) - Browse, Search (linked after 2015)

Congressional Record Index - Daily (1995 to current via - Browse; linked throughout)

Congressional Record Index - Daily - History of Bills and Resolutions (1983 to current Cong. via GPO's GovInfo; 1983 to 1992 does not reference page numbers & dates - Browse, Search)

Congressional Record - Predecessors (1789 to 1873 via Library of Congress - Annals of Congress 1789-1824, Register of Debates 1824-1837, Congressional Globe 1833-1873 - Browse, Print/Save images)

Congressional Record - Predecessors (1789 to 1856 - via Internet Archive - Abridgement of the Debates of Congress from the Annals of Congress, Register of Debates & official reported debates - Advance Search for Title, select volume then Search inside for words/phrases - Magnify, Browse, Download)

Congressional Record - Predecessors (1833 to 1873 - via Internet Archive - Advance Search for Title: Congressional Globe and Date, Search inside for word/phrases - Magnify, Browse, Download)

Congressional Record - Predecessors (1824 to 1873) via Hathi Trust Digital Library - Register of Debates 1824-1837, Congressional Globe 1833-1873 - complete page by page - Browse, Search)

The Congressional Record - Available Through CSU Libraries (CSU Only)

The Congressional Record - HeinOnline

The Congressional Serial Set - HeinOnline

U.S. Federal Legislative History Library

Additional Aids to The Congressional Record

The Congressional Record -

An Overview of the Congressional Record and Its Predecessor Publications: A Research Guide

What Is a Case?

A case is a dispute between two or more parties that is resolved by a court. The parties can be individual people or groups of people, the government, or incorporated entities. Cases can be either civil or criminal and are brought in both state and federal courts, but only the government can initiate a criminal case. Cases begin at the trial court level (also called the district court). If one of the parties disagrees with the decision, the party can appeal its case. Appellate courts, and sometimes trial courts, issue written decisions, which are often available online for free. See our guide for more information about state and federal court structure and systems

One of the roles of the courts is to interpret and apply statutes and constitutions. A court can also strike down statutes it believes to be unconstitutional. Sometimes, the legislative body may take the opinion of the court and use it to help re-work a new statute that will "pass constitutional muster."

Additionally, if a court says a law is too vague to be applied in a particular case, the legislative body may go back and re-write the law to make it more specific. There is a back-and-forth to the process, but in the end, it is all part of our system of "checks and balances." 

Westlaw Campus Research: Law is a legal research database that provides an array of interconnected primary and analytical law content to help students get a more complete understanding of the issue they are studying. Primary law includes access to federal and state caselaw, statutes, and regulations. Additionally, Campus Research provides access to thousands of analytical resources including American Jurisprudence, 2d., American Law Reports, and more than 800 law reviews and journals from law schools across the country. Research in nearly every academic discipline: business, marketing, accounting, criminal justice, health, social sciences, history, political science, and more; intersects with law. So all students can benefit from the comprehensive primary and analytical law-related sources readily available on Campus Research.