History and Cultural Studies: Primary vs secondary sources

Primary sources

A primary source is a document or record which contains first-hand information or original data on a topic. Primary sources are often created at the time of an event, but can also be recorded at a later time (e.g. memoirs or interviews). Primary sources provide insights into how people view their world at a particular time.

It is important to evaluate primary sources for accuracy, authenticity, bias and usefulness.

Examples:

  • Audio recordings[Jarmoluk, 'Picture of old photographs', CC Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), Image Source: flickr (https://pixabay.com/en/photo-photographer-old-photos-256887/)]
  • Artworks
  • Court records
  • Diaries
  • Drawings
  • Film footage
  • Government documents
  • Interviews
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Original manuscripts
  • Photographs
  • Poetry
  • Posters
  • Songs and sheet music
  • Speeches

Remember that primary sources are often reproduced in book format - but that they are still considered to be a primary source.

Source: Reitz, JM 2004, Online dictionary for library and information science, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, Conn.

These are a few examples of primary sources from the colletion. There are many more!

Access full text online by selecting these links:

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Can a source be both primary and secondary?

The use of a source in its correct context is what determines its designation as a primary or secondary source.

Occasionally a source or document may serve as a secondary source for one subject and as a primary source for another altogether different subject.

For example:
Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, KW 1999, Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History, Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, Westport.

Secondary sources

Any published or unpublished work that is one step removed from the original source (or event under review). A secondary source usually describes, summarises, analyses, evaluates, interprets or reviews primary source materials.

Remember that authors of secondary sources may use primary source material to persuade readers to support their arguments about an event and its meaning.

Examples:[Arcaion, 'Photo of text book and ebook', CC Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), Image source: Flickr (https://pixabay.com/en/reading-book-ebook-holiday-1249273/)

  • Biographical or historical studies
  • Critical analyses
  • Dictionaries
  • Documentaries
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Journal articles
  • Reviews
  • Second person account
  • Textbooks

Source: Reitz, JM 2004, Online dictionary for library and information science, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, Conn.

These are a few examples of secondary sources from the colletion. There are many more!

Access full text online by selecting these links:

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Tertiary sources

A written work, based entirely on secondary sources, rather than on original research involving primary documents. Whether a source is secondary or tertiary can be determined by examining the bibliography (if one is provided). Another clue is that secondary sources are almost always written by experts, but tertiary sources may be written by staff writers who have an interest in the topic but are not scholars on the subject.

Examples:['Book page turning', CC Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), Image source: Flickr (https://pixabay.com/en/books-reading-pages-textbooks-1149959/)

  • Chapter in a textbook
  • Entry in a reference book

Source: Reitz, JM 2004, Online dictionary for library and information science, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, Conn.

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Evaluating sources

It is important to evaluate primary, secondary and tertiary sources for accuracy, bias and usefulness. All works should be viewed through the eyes of the creator.

Considering the following questions will help determine the authenticity of the source, as well as any bias present:

  • [Geralt, 'Picture representation of who what when where why' CC Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), Image Source: flickr https://pixabay.com/en/questions-who-what-how-why-where-1328466/)]Who created the source? How do they know the details such as names, dates and times? Were they present at the event? Is the information based on personal experience, reports written by others, or data?
  • How accurate is the source when compared to others (first-hand and second-hand accounts)?
  • How trustworthy is the source? Has it been edited? How and why did it survive?
  • Why and when was the source created? Why was it later published? Was it ever intended for publication?
  • What is the bias in the source? All documents are biased to some extent. Is the bias purposeful or accidental?