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History: Getting Started: Primary and Secondary Sources

This guide offers a starting point for research in various areas of History.

Primary and Secondary Sources in History

In some disciplines, the scholarly articles describing research done in labs or with human subjects are considered primary source materials because they are the first-hand reports of the researchers observing and reporting what they're discovering. In history, however, primary and secondary sources are a little different. Here are some short definitions:

Primary Sources: Sources directly from the event or time period, including diaries, journals, letters, eyewitness reports, governmental records, news reports, photographs, films, and even social media posts from that moment.

Secondary Sources: Articles and books that examine, analyze, and summarize primary source documents. Most scholarly articles and books in history are secondary sources. Other publications, including textbooks, books for the general public, and non-scholarly articles may be based on secondary sources combined with selected primary sources.

Primary source materials reflect the observations of the creator of the materials, and secondary source materials are built on and connect those primary sources to tell a larger story or examine a theme. Keep in mind that at all parts of the process it's important to evaluate what you've located. Ask yourself about the larger societal structures that led to a particular source being preserved or shared, as these may also tell a story and help you understand the broader environment.

Secondary sources are essential for historiography - by reading and analyzing secondary sources over a span of time, it's possible to see the evolution of historical thought and writing about a topic. See the guide below for more details about historiography.

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