Aarhus University Seal

Primary and secondary literature 

When writing an academic assignment, you often have to include both primary literature and secondary literature. 

Primary literature is the literature you are examining, i.e. the historical sources, paintings, literary works, data, observations and other sources that serve as the primary object of your analysis. Secondary literature is literature that serves as background texts in your assignment. In other words, secondary literature is the theoretical texts and textbooks that your analyses and interpretation of primary literature are based on. 

Use of primary literature 

As a general rule, your primary literature must be in the original language. However, there may be cases in which a translation is fully adequate as primary literature. Ask your teacher what you may include as the primary object of analysis in your assignment. 

Use of secondary literature 

Assessing whether the number of secondary literature sources used in your assignment is too small or too large can be tricky. The best you can do to get a sense of the appropriate amount of secondary literature in your assignment is to: 

  • find out how secondary literature is used in texts from the relevant discipline. 

  • Ask your teacher how best to incorporate secondary literature in your assignment. 

Most importantly, make sure that you: 

  • introduce the secondary literature in your text and do not take it for granted. 

  • use secondary literature consciously and with a specific purpose in mind, rather than simply reporting it. 

  • clearly mark when you are presenting your own views and when you are referring to those of others, in other words cite correctly

In the list of references 

In some cases, it can be useful to divide your list of references into primary literature and secondary literature to provide a better overview.


The information about formalities is general guidelines. They do not replace the provisions in your academic regulations, your lecturers ' guidance or information on your course's website. First, please contact the above-mentioned locations. If in doubt, ask your supervisor.