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History Subject Resource Guide

Basic Definitions

Primary Sources

  • are written or created by participants or eyewitnesses at the time of the event in question or at some point soon after
  • provide evidence for historians
  • enable you to gain insight into thoughts, behaviors, or experiences of people of the past
  • allow you to develop your own interpretations
  • allow you to see inside the lives and minds of those that experienced the event
  • are format independent (primary material can be republished and/or be contained within other sources such as books, articles or websites)
  • can be tricky to locate

Examples:  Diaries, letters, speeches, interviews, eyewitness reports, works of art, novels, poems, photographs, fims, original research)

Secondary Sources

  • written or created by people who were not eyewitnesses or participants to the event in question
  • may be written by professional historians, but be aware that popular writers and journalists also write about historical topics (you will want to mostly stick to the scholarly secondary sources)
  • allow you to become acquainted with what is known about a topic
  • illustrate how other historians interpreted or analyzed an event
  • allow you to become familiar with the various issues and controversies surrounding an event
  • can provide a broader prospective and historical context for an event

Examples:  books and articles that synthesize ideas from primary sources, essay, reviews, etc.

Tertiary Sources

  • are third hand sources
  • do not interpret or analyze an event; they summarize or synthesize what is known (ex. encyclopedias)
  • can provide access to the primary and secondary sources (ex. bibliographies and indexes)
  • can be useful as an introduction to your topic, they are not acceptable as reliable evidence; most professors will not accept them as appropriate to cite in an academic paper

Examples:  encyclopedia articles, textbooks, indexes, bibliographies

Keep in mind that the status of a source as primary or secondary depends on the historical question you are asking.  For example, an article written today about the British homefront during WWI would be considered secondary.  However, if this same topic was written about in 1922, it would be considered primary by someone writing about how historians viewed and wrote about the topic.

About primary, secondary and tertiary sources

You might want to have a look at these books in the Reference Room

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