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What Is the Difference between a Primary and Secondary Historical Source?

It is crucial to distinguish between primary and secondary historical sources.  True historical investigation is focused on the use of primary sources (although secondary sources provide background and help to confirm facts and to assist in analysis of information).

A primary source is an original document containing a firsthand account of the event being studied, created at or about the time the event occurred.

For example:

  • Letters
  • Journals/Diaries
  • Maps
  • Government Documents/Statistics
  • Photographs or Film
  • Autobiographies
  • News Accounts

A secondary source is a secondhand account, or a history of the event that was created at some point after the event occurred, or a source created by parties who were not personally involved in the event.

For example:

  • Textbooks
  • Retrospective magazine articles
  • Scholarly journal articles
  • Research books on topic
  • Websites

At times, it can be difficult to determine if a source is primary.  There is an easy way to decide:  determine if the information source comes from the time of the event and/or the author of the document lived through the event, then it is a primary source.  For example, if a student were studying the Battle of Gettysburg, firsthand accounts of the battle written by those who were there, maps used by generals, photographs of the soldiers, casualty statistics, diaries or oral histories of the soldiers, and even newspaper articles written by reporters in the field covering the battles, would all be considered primary sources.

In comparison, a secondary source would be a retrospective or commemorative newspaper or magazine article written some years later, a textbook, or a book about the event that was later written by a historian.  At times, it can be difficult to distinguish primary from secondary.  For example, would a Civil War-era letter written by a wife of a soldier be a primary source about the Gettysburg battle?  Not necessarily.  Although the letter was written at the time of the event, unless the wife was an eyewitness to the battle, it would not be considered a primary source for the Gettysburg battle topic. However, if she mentions the battle and describes her impressions or knowledge of it, her letter could be considered a primary source for the Civil War in general and specifically for the impact of the war on families.  

The issue can become even trickier because many secondary sources reprint primary sources, in full or in part, and publish transcripts of documents or photographic reprints of primary historical records.  For student research purposes, these reprints can be considered primary, but students should understand the difference between a reprint or a transcript and the authentic document.  

One way to give students practice distinguishing between primary and secondary sources is by providing them with a number of different documents and engaging them in an activity to identify the type of source. Award cooperative groups or individuals points for correctly identifying the type of source, and ask them to explain why it is primary or secondary, and under what circumstances it was written.