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History: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Definitions (from Pennington School)

A primary source is an original material created during the time under study. Primary sources can be original documents, creative works, published materials of the times, institutional and government documents or relics and artifacts

Secondary sources put primary sources in context. They comment, summarize, interpret or analyze information found in primary sources. Secondary sources are usually written by individuals who did not experience firsthand the events about which they are writing.

Examples (from Penington School)

  Primary Sources

 Secondary Sources

· autobiography


· painting or object of art

·article reviewing or criticizing the art

· personal diary or letter(s)

·book about the person or event

· treaty (government document)

·essay interpreting the document

· poem, novel, short story, etc.

·literary criticism of the work

· firsthand observer accounts of event

·report on event years later

· play, film, television show

·biography of writer

· speech given by a person

·commentary on the speech

· research reports by researchers

·interpretation of the research

· photographs

·explanation of photographs

Selected Sources

Determining Primary vs. Secondary Sources (from Fresno State Univ.)

Primary vs. Secondary Sources: A Questionnaire

Answer the questions below about your source. If you answer, “yes” to any of the following questions, there is a good chance the source is PRIMARY.

Did the author personally witness or experience the subject in question?

Does the author know about this subject because of personal experience rather than having just read about it?

Is this source a diary, letter, memoir, autobiography, oral history, or interview of a person with first hand experience of the subject?

Is this source an official document or record published at the time of the event by the government, courts, or another organization?

Is this source a newspaper or magazine article written at the time of the event?

Is this a creative work such as a novel, poem, art or music piece created by a firsthand witness of the subject in question?

Is this an excerpt from a primary source, such as the constitution or a letter written by a Civil War soldier that has been imbedded in a secondary source, such as a textbook?Remember, secondary sources may include reprints of primary sources.

Is this an artifact or relic such as jewelry, pottery, clothing, music, art, architecture, dance or weaponry that was used by witnesses of the subject in question?

Is this a compilation of raw scientific data or statistics, such as census statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, that is being published without commentary or interpretation?