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History Primary and Secondary Source Research Guide

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources – Are original firsthand accounts written or created at the time in history being studied. They are the point of view of the individual witness’s perspective and opinion.

Be aware ancient primary sources are sometimes written by Greek or Roman historians writing hundreds of years after the original incident.  In addition translations may differ.

Examples are:

Diaries/ Personal Journals
Original Pictures and Videos Original works of art
 Blog entries

Government documents/ laws
Meeting minutes
 Financial records 

Historical news articles reporting at the time of history

Secondary Sources – Are written or created by someone looking back at history.  

Popular or General Public Secondary Sources - are written or produced with generalized information depending more on secondary sources than primary sources.  They are often written by journalists or staff writers.  Sometimes historians write for the general public, but they do not write as they would for other historians.  These authors often simplify history for the general public making  it seem they are presenting facts.  Popular history tends to be shorter with more pictures and written at the reading level of the general public.  Few if any sources cited. 

Examples are:

History websites
PBS and History Channel programs and websites
News reports on past events and people

Scholarly Secondary Sources - are written by historians with advanced history degrees who work in the history field and are writing to engage their fellow historians.  They analyze and interpret evidence they uncover through research.  Their writing is more focused on specific aspects of a historical event or person.  They rely strongly on primary sources, but also consider secondary sources written by other history scholars.  They try to consider multiple points of view.  However, they are arguing for their point of view based on their research and what they believe the evidence indicates. They  use citations to back up their arguments for their interpretations.  Their articles and books tend to be longer with fewer pictures and contain extensive citations

Examples are:

Scholarly books
Scholarly magazine/journal articles found in print or library library databases

Primary Sources in History Research

The library has many primary sources in print. Search the library online catalog for names of people in history (Benjamin Franklin or Martin Luther King) and then limit by author to find memoirs, autobiographies, collections of letters, and speeches.

There are also collections of historical documents like:

The library history databases can also be searched for primary sources. Search the "Historical Documents" portion of History Study Center to find historical documents. Search the New York Times HistoricalChicago Tribune Historical or Harpweek for primary source newspaper articles from the time in history you are studying.

Primary Source Websites

Choose primary sources found on the Web carefully. Make sure they are complete and not excerpts also make sure they are well cited as to where the original can be found.

Suggested primary source websites:

U.S. History

Ancient, Medieval, and World History

Secondary Sources in History Research

Search our history databases for articles video and images

Search the the MVCC libraries Online Catalog with keywords on your topic (e.g., civil war or new deal) or the name of a person of interest (Benjamin Franklin or Martin Luther King).

Historical Statistics

Citing Sources

For more help Ask A Librarian

Spring 2020 LMS