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Primary Sources: Overview

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are original, first-hand testimony.

They tell the story as experienced by witnesses. These sources help depict what actually happened - or at least what someone who was there says he or she experienced. These may include photographs, interviews, novels, speeches, letters, statistical data, artifacts or treaties.

Here are some questions you may want to keep in mind when considering the source:

  • When, where, and why was it written?
  • What do you know about the author's role in society or world-view?
  • For whom was it intended? What's its purpose?
  • How typical is this opinion for the period?
  • Is there corroboratory evidence for the author's depiction?
  • What is the context of the document?

Secondary sources comment on, interpret, or analyze primary documents.

The individuals who provide secondary source depictions are somewhat removed from the event they describe. These may provide historical or critical perspectives. They often try to answer the above questions. Secondary sources, like primary sources, offer additional information but are not inherently neutral. You should assess secondary sources as critically as primary sources.

Primary Source Guides