Primary and Secondary Sources

What is a primary source?

Primary sources of materials are integral in the study of history. A primary source is a document which was written or created during the time period being researched. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include: diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records, poetry, drama, novels, music, art, pottery, furniture, clothing, and buildings.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources publications include: textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedia.

How to Analyze Primary Sources

While primary sources are often desirable for the raw, non-interpreted information they provide, it is important to analyze them for your research. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the creator and what was their relationship to the event or issue?
  • Why did the creator produce this source?
  • Was the source for personal use?  For a large audience?
  • Was the source intended to be public (newspaper) or private (correspondence)?
  • Everyone has biases. What biases or interests might have influenced how the source was created?
  • Can the source be substantiated by other primary sources? Can you confirm what the creator is saying?
  • Who's voice is missing?

What is a Primary Source?

Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources





Types of Sources





Original documents created or experienced concurrently with the event being researched.

First hand observations, contemporary accounts of the event. Viewpoint of the time.

Interviews, news footage, data sets, original research, speeches, diaries, letters, creative works, photographs


Works that analyze, assess, or interpret a historical event, an era, or a phenomenon. Generally uses primary sources.

Interpretation of information, usually written well after an event. Offers reviews or critiques.

Research studies, literary criticism, book reviews, biographies, textbooks


Sources that identify, locate, and synthesize primary AND secondary sources.

Reference works, collections of lists of primary and secondary sources, finding tools for sources.

Encyclopedias, bibliographies, dictionaries, manuals, textbooks, fact books

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