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History: Primary/Secondary sources

This guide supports work in History classes at Shoreline Community College

Evaluate Sources

What is a primary document? 

  • Examples of primary documents/sources include: original documents (like the actual United States Constitution), research articles, diaries, interviews, personal accounts of events, eye-witness experiences and live-action news.

Useful guidelines

1. Introduction 
For history research,
the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is important. Did the  author report impressions first hand  or are they or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand.

2. Primary Sources 

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.

3. Secondary Sources 

The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign values to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

4. Defining Questions 

When evaluating primary or secondary sources, the following questions might be asked to help ascertain the nature and value of material being considered:

  • Was the author present at the event?
  • Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
  • Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?

 Assess your sources carefully:Even the best historical accounts are  viewed through the eyes of the writer.


Adapted from Brookens library History guide

Understanding Bias in Scholarship

"What is history but a fable agreed upon?" - Napoleon Bonaparte

(Image from Wilkimedia commons. No known restrictions on publication)

Cartographic Bias

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