Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources

A Quick Reference Guide for Teachers and Students from the State Archives of Florida

What Are Primary and Secondary Sources?

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Primary Source

A primary source is something written or created during the historical event or time period you are studying by someone who had firsthand knowledge of it.

  • Letters.
  • Diary or journal entries.
  • Film footage (from that time period).
  • Telegrams.
  • Speeches.
  • Original, unmodified photographs.
  • Government records and reports.
  • Advertisements, posters and pamphlets (from that time period).
  • Newspaper or magazine articles (from that time period).
  • Memoirs and oral histories (if the person experienced the historical time period you are studying).
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Secondary Source

A secondary source is something written or created by someone who did not have firsthand knowledge of the historical event or time period you are studying.

  • Books, including biographies.
  • Textbooks.
  • Encyclopedias, including Wikipedia.
  • Later magazine and newspaper articles.
  • Documentaries.
  • Expert interviews.
  • Scholarly journals.
  • Historical reenactments.
  • Theses and dissertations.

 

Watch Out!

Sometimes sources look primary when they’re actually secondary or vice-versa. What makes a source primary or secondary is the perspective used to create it, not its physical form. Some examples:

  • A newspaper article written in 2008 about the Battle of Gettysburg is secondary rather than primary because the author didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the event. A newspaper article written in 1863 by a journalist who witnessed the battle, however, would be primary.
  • If you have a book of President Thomas Jefferson’s speeches that was published in 2015, the speeches are primary sources even though the book is recent. The speeches are still Jefferson’s writing and they come from the historical moment you’re studying. Anything the editor says about the speeches (i.e., the editor’s words and not Jefferson’s) would be secondary.

One More Thing: National History Day and similar competitions have very specific guidelines about what constitutes a primary source. Be sure to consult the contest rules when selecting your sources!

Why Does It Matter Which Sources You Use?

When an author creates a secondary source, they interpret other sources to write about their topic. They look for evidence in primary and secondary sources and then tell the story the way they feel it should be told. When you rely on that author’s work to learn about that topic, you are only getting that one author’s perspective about what really happened.

Even though authors do research and use evidence to support their conclusions, different authors can have very different ideas about what that evidence means. That’s why there are so many history books about the same events! It’s also why it is important to use multiple secondary sources when doing your own historical research. You’re missing lots of useful perspectives if you only consult one author.

When you use primary sources, it’s like having a conversation with the people who lived through a historical event without having the secondary source author as a middle-man. You get to decide for yourself what happened based on the evidence you find. You become the historian!

This doesn’t mean secondary sources are bad or untrustworthy. Books, magazine articles, documentaries, and other secondary sources are great for finding new and interesting topics to study. They can also help you understand the basic facts about a topic — the who, what, when, where and why. Still, it’s important to remember that when you use secondary sources, you’re only getting the author’s interpretation of a historical event. If the assignment is to come up with your own interpretation, a combination of primary and secondary sources can help you get closer to understanding what really happened!

So Are Primary Sources Automatically Better?

Not necessarily. While the authors of primary sources may have witnessed an event or even been involved, there’s no guarantee that what they wrote in their diary or letter or report was 100% accurate. So how can you be sure you’re doing good primary source research?

  • Use the best source for the job. For example, if you’re writing about what it was like to be a soldier on the front lines during the Civil War, a contemporary newspaper article or the diary of someone back on the home front might have helpful details and observations. However, it generally won’t be as good as a letter or journal entry from someone who was actually on the battlefield and can speak from firsthand experience.

  • Watch out for bias. People and institutions sometimes have very slanted views on what’s happening around them, and those biases may be reflected in the primary sources they create. Company newsletters, press releases and public announcements, for example, tend to focus on positive news even if there’s actually trouble going on behind the scenes.

  • Try to find multiple primary sources to support your arguments. When you use only one primary source to make your point, you’re trusting that that source is an accurate representation of what was really happening during the historical moment you’re studying.   With multiple sources, you can compare perspectives and get a better picture of what was going on.


Test Your Source Sorting Skills!

Imagine you are working on a project about Florida during World War II. Which of the following sources would be primary, and which ones would be secondary? Check the appropriate box for each source.

Primary

Secondary

 

 

 

A book written in 1996 about Tampa during World War II by someone who studied lots of relevant letters and other documents from the 1940s.

 

 

A letter written by a woman to her sister in 1944 describing what it was like to work in a shipbuilding factory.

 

 

A newsreel from 1942 showing soldiers drilling on the beach in Miami.

 

 

A 2009 documentary video featuring film footage and excerpts of letters from soldiers who trained at Camp Gordon Johnston in Carrabelle.

 

 

A scholarly journal article from 1998 analyzing data about the amount of scrap metal collected by Florida school children during the war.

 

 

A 1942 speech by Governor Spessard Holland about the importance of conserving food and fuel during the war, published in a 2008 book of speeches from Florida governors.

 

 

An interview with an expert historian who has been studying World War II in Florida for more than 30 years.

 

 

A newspaper article from 1943 describing shortages of certain foods and building materials in Orlando.

 

 

An interview with someone who lived in Florida during World War II.

 

 

A memoir written in 2002 by a World War II veteran who trained at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

 

How well did you do? Check your answers using the key on the next page.

 

Where to Look for Primary Sources

On the Shelf

  • Books of letters or speeches by a person key to the topic you’re studying.
  • Books of photographs taken during the time period you’re studying.
  • Collections of personal papers and records at a library or archive. These institutions usually have a reading room you can visit to look through the collections in person. Universities, museums and historical societies have archives, as do state governments and even some counties and cities.

 

Online

  • Library of Congress (loc.gov), especially the Manuscripts/Mixed Material section.
  • National Archives (archives.gov).
  • Archival collections digitized by state libraries and archives (e.g., FloridaMemory.com), or by a university library (e.g., University of Florida Digital Collections – ufdc.ufl.edu).
  • Newspaper databases, such as the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America or the University of Florida’s Digital Newspaper Library.
  • Online collections of historic books, pamphlets and other publications (e.g., HathiTrust.org).

Test Your Source Sorting Skills – Answer Key:

  1. Secondary – The author likely used many primary sources to write the book, but the book itself is her interpretation of those sources, presented from her unique perspective as a historian.
  2. Primary – The woman was both an eyewitness to and participant in the historical event you’re studying.
  3. Primary – The footage allows you to see what it was like to be a soldier training in Florida for combat duty. One thing to watch out for — newsreels can sometimes present a biased view of a subject, particularly if they were supplied to the press by government agencies as propaganda.
  4. Secondary – Even though the documentary contains lots of pieces of primary sources about your topic, the creator has very carefully selected the excerpts he wants you to see, and is explaining their significance from his own point of view.
  5. Secondary – The author probably used primary sources to get the data, but the analysis in the article is based on her own interpretation of that data.
  6. Primary – Even though the book is recent, the speech was still written in the time period you are studying — it’s a window into Governor Holland’s perspective on the challenges Florida faced during World War II.
  7. Secondary – No matter how much time a historian spends studying a certain topic, everything they write or say is based on their interpretation of what they have studied.
  8. Primary – Generally, journalists report either their observations of an event or what they were told by someone with authority to speak on the topic. Something important to keep in mind, though: The farther away a newspaper article is from the event it is describing — both spatially and in time — the less “primary” it is.
  9. Primary – The person you are speaking with actually lived through the time period you are researching and has the firsthand knowledge to answer many of the questions you have. Watch out, though — just because someone lived during World War II doesn’t mean they were personally familiar with every aspect of it at the time. If you’re trying to find primary sources about the daily routine for soldiers at Camp Blanding, for example, an interview with someone who was a child in the 1940s and only visited the base a few times would not be the best approach. An interview with someone who was actually a soldier on base would be much better.
  10. Primary – The memoir is recent, but it’s based on knowledge that was originally acquired during the historical event you’re studying. Memoirs written many years after the events they describe can have some pitfalls. The writer may have forgotten some information, or might misremember some details. The writer may also deliberately emphasize some points and leave others out entirely to get a certain idea across. The best approach to memoirs? Use them in combination with other primary sources if you can, and be mindful of places where the sources disagree.