Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original materials used by historians to reconstruct a certain event in the past or moment in history.
They are original documents, physical objects, relics, or artifacts created during the time under study by witnesses who lived through the event. These sources were either produced at the time of the event, or (as in the case of memoirs and autobiographies) published at a later date.

The following are only a few examples of primary sources and are by no means exhaustive:

1. Original documents such as letters, diaries, manuscripts, official documents, maps, pictures, and original film footage. Examples: the original Constitution of the United States, an original treaty between two states, diaries of travellers who document their journeys and experiences on the road, maps of cities or first-hand descriptions of battles.

2. Relics and artifacts such as arrowheads, pottery shards, remains of buildings, clothing, and statues.

3. Literature, poetry, drama, music, drawings, and other kinds of art; such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, cave paintings, poetry written by courtiers or bards.

Primary sources should be read critically and should not be taken as the literal truth. When analyzing a primary document, one should take into account who the author was, why he or she was writing the document, and who (if anyone) was its target audience. Did the author have any biases that influenced the way the document was written? How reliable is the author? Start by reading for content, then ask yourself the above questions -- how do they affect your understanding of the document?

It is essential to place the document into historical context and not judge its content by today's standards, always keeping in mind differences between the time it was written and the present.

What Are Secondary Sources?

A secondary source is a contemporary document, book, or article that analyzes, evaluates, and synthesizes information from primary sources. Most secondary sources refer back to or have quotes and pictures from the primary source(s), but are written after the event in question. Secondary sources are commentaries on and discussions of primary sources. When using secondary sources, it is important to strive to be objective, even though this may not always be completely possible. A few examples of secondary sources include books, articles, histories, encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies, textbooks, and (most) websites.

When writing a history research paper, primary sources are used in conjunction with secondary sources. It is important to evaluate the importance and relevance of the primary document to the assignment. It is also very important to assess the document critically and evaluate its authenticity, authorship, language, and reliability. Who was the author? What were his or her motives for writing the document? How reliable do you think he/she is? What kind of language is the author using? Who is her/her target audience? How relevant is this document to your topic? Once you have answered these questions to your satisfaction, you can begin constructing your argument.