Historical Sources


Primary v. Secondary Sources

The historical method is based on the analysis of primary sources and the creation of secondary sources.

Primary Source
A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diary of Anne Frank (Experiences of a Jewish family during World War II)
  • The Constitution of the United States (American History)
  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
  • Weavings and pottery (Native American history)
  • Plato’s Republic (Life and Ideas in Ancient Greece)

Secondary Source
A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources include:

  • PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about some historical event or person (examples, David McCullogh’s 1776 or Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution)