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Definitions of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the first hand evidence left behind by participants or observers at the time of events. 

"Primary sources originate in the time period that historians are studying.  They vary a great deal. They may include personal memoirs, government documents, transcripts of legal proceedings, oral histories and traditions, archaeological and biological evidence, and visual sources like paintings and photographs. " ( Storey, William Kelleher.  Writing History: A guide for Students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.18).

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format. (Primary Sources at Yale:

Secondary Sources  

"Secondary works reflect on earlier times. Typically, they are books and articles by writers who are interpreting the events and primary sources that you are studying. Secondary works vary a great deal, from books by professional scholars to journalistic accounts.  Evaluate each secondary work on its own merits, particularly on how well it uses primary sources as evidence." (Storey, William Kelleher. Writing History: A guide for Students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.18-19).


Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources




Printed& Published

  • Autobiographies, memoirs, personal narratives
  • Accounts, eyewitnesses
  • Conference proceedings
  • Diaries, letters, correspondences, journals
  • Government documents—laws, cases, treaties
  • Interviews, oral histories, speeches
  • Literature—novel/fictions, poems
  • Records, transcripts
  • Books, such as biographies (not an autobiography), textbooks, Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Articles, such as literature reviews, commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • Criticism of works of literature, art and music

Manuscripts & Archival Material

  • Diaries, letters, correspondences, journals
  • Interviews, oral histories, speeches
  • Artifacts—manufactured items, clothing, furniture,             tools, buildings
  • Organization records

Visual Materials

  • Cartoons, postcards, posters
  • Films, music
  • Interviews, oral histories, speeches
  • Maps/atlases
  • Photographs


  • First-hand newspaper and magazine accounts of events


  • Statistics, surveys, opinion polls
  • Scientific data

Internet Sources

  • Emails, text messages, tweets
  • Web pages of primary source materials

Purposes of Using Primary Sources

Purpose of Using Primary Sources

Tom Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination and Understanding

[T]he documents students work with should be genuinely open to multiple interpretations and open ended questions….By learning to construct their own narratives, students will learn to critique others’ narratives.  History, then, becomes an ongoing conversation and debate rather than a dry compilation of “facts” and dates, a closed catechism or a set of questions already answered.  There is within it “a place to invent.” (p. 15-16)

 Library of Congress, “Teaching Inquiry with Primary Sources” (

By their very nature, primary sources engage students in inquiry. First, they transform the learning process by provoking critical thinking: questioning; making inferences; interpreting different points of view; using critical thinking skills to analyze and evaluate; drawing conclusions; and pulling together disparate pieces of evidence to think conceptually.

Second, primary sources engage students both emotionally and personally because the sources represent authentic voices and images. Students connect to the people who produced or were subjects of the primary sources as they rarely, if ever, connect to textbooks and other secondary sources.

Finally, the conflicting nature of primary sources helps students see the complexity of issues and recognize the importance of context for credible interpretation. This multiple-perspective approach is particularly important for historical inquiry.

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