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Primary Sources: American & World History

Primary and Secondary Sources

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Before you attempt to find primary sources on a topic, you need to have a good understanding of what constitutes a primary source. It is very common for students to be confused about primary vs. secondary sources, so here is a brief breakdown:

Primary Sources:

A primary source is a document or object written or created during the time under study. The author/creator was present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.

Types of primary sources include:

  • Original documents like diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, and official records
  • Creative works like poetry, drama, novels, music, and art
  • Relics or artifacts like pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples: 

  • The Diary of Anne Frank book (written during WWII and Holocaust)
  • Text of the Gettysburg Address (speech given during the American Civil War)
  • Native American pottery (art created during a time period/culture being studied)

Secondary Sources:

A secondary source is a document that interprets or analyzes primary sources. These are second-hand accounts of an historical event.

Examples:

  • A book published in 2008 about Abraham Lincoln's assassination
    • Note: a newspaper article from the days after the assassination would be a primary source
  • A biology research article discussing the findings of other scientists
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • A book about the effects of the American Civil War