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HI 400 Research Seminar: What are Primary/Secondary Sources?

A Library Research Guide for HI 400.

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary sources are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events you are studying. They are written from the perspective of a participant or observer of those events. Examples include:

  • diaries
  • letters/correspondence
  • photographs
  • memos
  • newspaper articles
  • government records 
  • financial records
  • advertisements
  • receipts
                
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • memoirs & autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • narratives or personal narratives
  • emails
  • speeches
  • meeting minutes
  • artifacts (material culture)

 

Examples of Secondary Sources

Secondary sources often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. They are second hand accounts of historical events, usually published after the events or time period being studied. Examples include:

  • textbooks
  • journal articles
                
  • histories
  • biographies

Secondary sources look beyond a particular event or artifact and can broaden your perspective and research.   They can also provide historical perspective based on other events that have taken place since the original event or work.

Examples of Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources contain information that has been compiled from primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources include:

  • almanacs
  • chronologies
  • dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • directories
  • guidebooks
                
  • indexes
  • abstracts
  • manuals
  • textbooks

 

Understanding Primary Sources

According to the American Historical Association, when determining if a source is primary or secondary:

1. Consider when the source (e.g. document, letter, account) was made or created. In particular, was the source created at the time of an event? Does the source document the author's perspective? Or, does the source, for instance, describe the business of a person, organization, or government? 

2. Consider to what time period the source refers. Primary sources usually concern the contemporary period. However, they may also be an author's own account or recollection of earlier experiences. Thus, contemporary accounts in diaries and correspondence are primary sources as are interviews, memoirs, and oral histories made after the fact.

The day-to-day paper-trail and artifacts created by people and organizations going about their daily life are usually primary sources. We all produce primary sources every day (e.g. emails, social media posts, shopping receipts, etc.). The job of the historian is to compile primary sources and make an argument about the past in consultation with the work (i.e. secondary sources) of other historians.

Reference: "Understanding How Primary Sources--Visual and Textual--Were Produced," American Historical Association. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/for-teachers/understanding-how-primary-sources-visual-and-textual-were-produced (Accessed August 25, 2017)

When in Doubt

If you are not sure if a given source is primary or secondary for the purposes of your research project, ask your instructor. There are many gray areas and your instructor's interpretation will be required. 

Chat with a Librarian!

If you are experiencing problems with our guides, please contact Janet S. Ward, jward@limestone.edu, Associate Professor and Web Services Librarian.