Identifying Primary Sources
Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs). They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Examples include: photographs, interviews, diaries, letters, and governement records.
A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources. Examples include: scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.
How can you determine whether an item is a primary source?
The following characteristics can help you differentiate primary sources from those that are not.
- When was the object or document created? Was it created at the same time as the event took place?
- What technology was available at the time of the event? A video of something that took place before the invention of the motion picture cannot be a primary source.
- Who's telling the story? Were they present at the event? How does the author know what he/she knows?
- Why was the source created? Is it presenting the facts of an event, or analyzing what occurred?
- Why is the information being provided or the article written?
- Are there references to other writings on this topic?
- Is the date of publication evident?
- Does the date of publication close to the event described?