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Primary vs. Secondary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.
  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art , recordings
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings
  • Diary of Anne Frank - First hand experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
  • The United States Constitution
  • A journal article reporting brand NEW research or findings
  • Native American pottery
A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources and are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These types of sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.
  •  PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias
  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about the effects of WWI
  • Conference proceedings
  • Radio or television documentaries

When EVALUATING primary & secondary sources, ask yourself…
  1. How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
  2. Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
  3. Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?

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