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PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SOURCES

Source Types

The fundamental difference between the two kinds of sources is their timing. If your research is based on documentation that comes directly from the period being researched, then it is primary, but if the material you are using is based on someone else’s research, then it is secondary. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the more primary research one uses in their writing, the more compelling your argument. Using primary sources helps you form your own opinion. If you rely on secondary sources, you are relying on someone else’s interpretation of events.You will be required to use at least six sources for each assignment.

Primary Sources
  • Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence about a topic under investigation or a source of information that was created at the time under study.
  • These records were created by witnesses who experienced the events being documented, often at the very time the event occurred.
    • These sources can also include memoirs, autobiographies, and oral histories recorded later by the principals themselves.
  • Age is an important factor in determining whether a serial publication is a primary or secondary source.
    • For example, an article on the Titanic by a staff writer in a recent issue Time should be read as a secondary source, even if the author used primary source materials such as ledgers, diaries, or government documents. An article by a survivor of the sinking would be read as a primary source because it was an eyewitness account.

A primary source is an immediate, firsthand account. Some examples include:

  • Maps.
  • Diaries.
  • Letters.
  • Memoirs.
  • Museum exhibits.
  • Photographs.
  • Oral histories
  • Autobiographies.
  • Presidential library holdings.
  • Dissertations and theses.
  • Speeches (transcriptions).
  • Eyewitness accounts of events.
Secondary Sources
  • Secondary sources are generally accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
  • Secondary sources are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources and are not evidence, but rather a commentary on, and discussion of, that evidence.
  • Books are usually considered secondary sources, but writers may use primary source materials such as letters and diaries to write the books themselves. Thus, books can be a rich source of primary sources, especially if you consult the footnotes and endnotes.

A secondary source is one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. Secondary sources may cover the same topic but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Some examples include:

  • Manuals.
  • Almanacs.
  • Textbooks.
  • Fact books.
  • Directories.
  • Guidebooks.
  • Chronologies.
  • Bibliographies.
  • Historical works.
  • Biographical works.
  • Commentaries and criticisms.
  • Monographs, other than fictional works and autobiographies.
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