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History: Differences Between Primary and Secondary Sources

History of the US and World

Primary v. Secondary Sources

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are the historical documents used by historians as evidence. Examples of primary sources include diaries, personal journals, government records, court records, property records, newspaper articles, military reports, military rosters, and many other things.

In contrast, a secondary source is the typical history book which may discuss a person, event or other historical topic. A good secondary source uses primary sources as evidence.

The key to determining whether an item may be considered to be a primary source is to ask how soon after the event was the information recorded. This can be a problem with an autobiography, memoir, reminiscence, etc. if the author is working several years with only the memory of what happened. Your history professor will disallow most or all of these as primary sources.

Using Primary Sources on the Web This guide provides an overview of what primary sources are with examples. Information about finding, using, evaluating and citing them is also included. Site developed by the American Library Association.  

Guidelines for Evaluating Primary Sources

Use the following criteria to determine the reliability and creditibility of the information found on Websites used in your research.

Who: Who is the author or sponsor of the website? Is that person or organization named? Is any supporting documentation available?

What: What is the mission or purpose of the website? Is it clearly articulated? What kinds of materials are on the website? Are they properly cited and acknowledged? What is the document format on the web?

Where: Where is the site located? Is there a physical address with phone number and email address for a contact person? Does the site have a .edu, .org, or .com address?

Why: Why does the site exist? Does it have a point of view or opinion? Is it pedagogical or polemic? Does it want something from you?

Credit:  American Library Association, Reference and User Services Association, History Section


Additional Evaluation Websites