and Secondary Sources
How do students and historians gain an
understanding of events in the past? They do it through consulting
sources (usually a document of some kind). Sources include books,
photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, magazines and
journals, sound recordings, web sites, and e-mail messages.
Historians and other students of the past divide
documents into two main categories: Primary Sources and Secondary
Sources. When trying to understand events in the past, it is critical
for you to know which type of source you are dealing with.
A Primary Source is a document that was created
at or near the time of the event that it discusses. Often it is
the account of a participant or eyewitness to an event. Examples
of primary sources are letters, diaries, laws and other acts of
governments, e-mail messages, recordings, and newspaper articles.
Primary sources can be either published or unpublished. A handwritten
letter from an American soldier in Afghanistan to someone back home
would be an unpublished primary source for a future historian of
the war in Afghanistan. If a book publisher collected a number of
soldiers' letters and printed them as a book, each letter in the
book would be a published primary source.
Secondary Sources are accounts of events written
by historians or other observers, after or at some distance from
the event itself. A history of the American Revolution (1775-1783)
written in 2002 or 1890 would be a Secondary Source. In most cases,
Secondary Sources offer explanations and interpretations of historical
events. These interpretations usually are based on a study of Primary
As an example, imagine that you wanted to learn
about the surrender of the British army at Yorktown in 1781. It
would be nice to be able to hear a recording of an interview with
the generals and soldiers who took part in the battle. Because
sound recordings did not exist in this period, we generally have to
rely on written primary
sources. Some written primary sources that you might
consult would be the reports of the commanders of the two armies,
the text of the surrender agreement, letters and diaries of soldiers
in each army, and newspaper accounts of the surrender in American
and British newspapers. Secondary sources would include histories
of the American Revolution or books or encyclopedia articles (on-line
or printed) on the Yorktown campaign.
Historians and students need to view all kinds
of sources with a critical eye. With Primary Sources, you should
ask questions of yourself like: Was the author of this document
in a good position to observe what she is writing about? Were there
other observers of the battle who for one reason or another were
unable to write down what they saw? Are there other ways to reconstruct
their perspectives? With both Primary and Secondary Sources, you
should always ask whether the author is biased in some way-does
the author have a point he is trying to prove? Always think about
where the author is coming from. For example, imagine a historian
is studying the career of Eminem. She has before her the following:
an article on Eminem in People magazine; a press release from Eminem's
record label; and the text of the "Communications Decency Act."
The authors of each document have distinct points of view, possibly
biases. You as a student should think through what those points
of view and biases might be.
Remember that the form a document appears
in does not define its nature as Primary or Secondary. A Secondary
Source is almost always a published document. A Primary Source can
be published or unpublished. Just because something is printed between
the covers a book, it is not necessarily a Secondary Source. Often
diaries, letters, public laws and the like are published. They are
still Primary Sources.
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