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Primary v. Secondary Sources

One of the more confusing distinctions for history students at every level is that between “primary” and “secondary” sources. For your research paper you must include at least one primary source in your references. Primary sources are original, first-hand accounts of an event or time period. They are usually written or made during or close to the event or time period. They can be anything from newspapers or government documents to original, creative writing or works of art. Most importantly, these sources are factual and not interpretive because they come directly from the source. Secondary sources, on the other hand, analyze and interpret primary sources. They are second-hand accounts of an historical event or time period. Most of the historical materials you have seen at this point in your academic career are secondary sources. Below is a table that shows some of the most common primary and secondary sources to help guide your research.

Examples of Primary Sources Examples of secondary Sources
  • Diaries, journals, and letters
  • Newspaper and magazine articles (factual accounts)
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses (e.g., The Civil Right Movement)
  • Interviews with people who lived during a particular time (e.g., genocide in the Americas)
  • Songs, Plays, novels, stories
  • Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
  • Biographies – Books
  • Histories – Books
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater Reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Books (encyclopedias)

What is the difference between a primary and secondary source?

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