Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Zakiya Jenkins, Teacher
William James Christian School
“The leavings, the shards, the
remnants of people who once
lived and don't live any more."
A definition of a Primary Source
• Contemporary Accounts of an event
written by the person who witnessed or
experienced it. FIRST HAND!
• Original Documents, Unpublished –
not about another document or account
• Published works - as long as they are
written soon after the fact and not as
Why do we use primary sources in
• No bias, no viewpoint
• Only your interpretation
• Can give additional information
• Printing methods
What is a Primary Source?
An informational source from the
time of the event
• Autobiographies • Novels
• Diaries • Objects from the time
• Documents • Oral histories
• Eyewitness • Photographs
• Film footage • Poems, art, music
• Memoirs • Speeches
• Laws • Manuscripts
• Letters • Interviews
• Newspaper • Audio or video recordings
articles • Research reports (natural
• Statistical Data or social sciences)
• Original literary or
How do you know?
• Ask yourself some questions:
• How does the author know these details?
• Was the author present at the event or soon on
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?
Does a Primary Source have to be
the original material?
No – it can be in another form, but it
can’t be edited or interpreted in
Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give
Me Death!” speech can be found in 100
Key Documents in American History
What is going on in
this photo? What
questions does it
Questions to ask yourself when
looking at Primary Sources
• Who wrote this?
• How do they know the information
they are telling me?
• When did they write it?
• Why did they write it?
• Who did they write it for?
• Interpret primary sources - at least
one step removed from the event or
phenomenon under review
• Examination of studies that other
researchers have made of a subject
• Second Hand - conveys the
experiences and opinions of others
What are Secondary
An informational source that analyzes the
event. These sources often use several
primary sources to compile the information.
• History books
• Journal Articles
• Radio and T.V. Documentaries
Are Secondary Sources useful ?
Yes – They provide the necessary
background or context to be able to
interpret Primary Sources
World Book 2005 or your Social Studies
textbook can provide background
information about the events leading up
to Revolutionary War.
Checking Your Sources
• When you read primary or secondary
sources, you should analyze them to
figure out if they are dependable or
reliable. Historians usually prefer
primary sources to secondary sources,
but both can be reliable or unreliable,
depending on the following factors.
1. Time Span
Where can I find Primary and
Secondary Sources in my school
Use your favorite, but use it wisely
Beware of Bias!
Is it possible for a Secondary Source
to be completely objective?
Wikipedia’s entry on President
The following passage describes his National Guard
In May 1968, at the height of the Vietnam
War, he entered the Texas Air National
Guard. He trained in the guard for two
years, where he was among the last to
learn to fly the F-102, a plane not used in
Vietnam and due to be retired.
While this could be true, why would it be important
to know that he was “among the last to learn to
fly the F-102”? Is this a commentary on
President Bush flying an outdated plane? Is it an
unbiased point of view?
Encarta’s entry on President
(note that Encarta lets people edit its pages but with editor approval)
Upon completing college, [Bush] became eligible for the
military draft. To meet his service obligation, Bush enlisted
in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. He told the
admitting officer that he wanted to become a pilot like his
father, who was a highly decorated Navy flier in World War
II. He did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in
Texas, and entered a pilot-training program at Moody Air
Force Base Georgia. He received favorable reports from his
superiors, attained the rank of second lieutenant, and was
certified to fly the F-102 jet fighter during training missions
in the South and along the Gulf Coast.
Encarta doesn’t mention that President Bush being one of the last to
fly the F-102, and instead notes patriotically how President Bush
wanted to fly a jet like his father.
Classifying Primary Sources
• Printed Publications • Oral Histories
• Songs and Poems • Personal Records
• Visual Materials • Artifacts
• Each group will receive an envelope
with different types of primary sources.
• Place them in their appropriate
For more information…
• Library Research: Finding Primary Sources. Berkeley: Library,
University of California, Berkeley.
• Research Skills Tutorial: Primary Research. Toronto: Gerstein
Science Information Centre.
• Primary and Secondary Sources. Ithaca College.