Primary vs. Secondary Sources for History

Sources for history: primary vs. secondary sources

As will become clear over time as I add more posts about historical sources, there are many different types of sources. Historical sources are the foundation upon which all historical enquiry is built, and so it is well worth the effort to give some thought to their selection and evaluation. I will begin by talking about the two main categories of historical sources.

For the sake of convenience, historians tend to break down sources into two main categories: primary and secondary.

Primary Sources:

Primary sources tend to originate in or near the period that you as an historian are studying. This category includes a bewilderingly wide array of documents. Personal letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, contemporary histories, and government documents are but a few examples of primary documents. Archaeological evidence, legal records, works of art and oral traditions can also be primary sources for the study of history.

Note that I said that they “tend” to originate in or near the period that you are studying. This is a necessarily fuzzy definition that occasionally needs to be stretched depending on the period or topic that you are studying. For example, if you want to study the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, you will encounter a wealth of primary sources that were produced during or near the events themselves, often by people who were personally involved in the events. But if you are studying the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, you will find that contemporary British accounts simply do not exist. In cases such as this, your primary sources may not be exactly contemporary to the events they describe.

Secondary Sources:

Secondary sources are books or articles written by authors who have interpreted primary as well as other secondary sources in order to study the past. Your history textbooks are secondary works, as are scholarly journal articles and monographs (books that deal in detail with one particular subject).

Potential Confusion:

Secondary sources can also sometimes function as primary sources!

In 2004 an article I wrote about events that took place during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was published in this book. If you were to use my article as a source for an essay about the Peasants’ Revolt, you would be using it as a secondary source. Why? Because I gathered all available primary and secondary sources, evaluated and analyzed them, came to my conclusions, then presented in the article my interpretation of events that took place during the revolt. It is this interpretation of past events that makes it a secondary source.

However, if you were writing about early 21st century research into the Peasants’ Revolt, you could then use my article as a primary source. Why? Because the topic of study is no longer events that took place in 1381, but rather attitudes and ideas that were developed in the early 21st century. My interpretation of past events has itself now become the subject of your study, and so my article would serve as a primary source.

Another example:

If you were writing about the Roman Empire, you might make use of Edward Gibbon’s classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a secondary source. Although you should not do so blindly as it is a very dated source that has been superseded by more recent research! It would be a secondary source as it presents Gibbons interpretations of the past based uon other historical sources.

But if you were writing about how people wrote history in the late 18th century, you would use Gibbon as a primary source. Again, this shift has occurred because the topic has changed from Roman history to 18th century historiography. The source (Gibbon’s book)  is no longer just a source, it has itself become the subject.

Why does this matter? In part it may matter to you simply because your prof has told you that you need X number of primary sources and Y number of secondary sources in your bibliography. But it is also important because the way that you make use of different sources will shape the way that you approach your study of the past.

Primary sources represent the most direct link to the past and to the people whose lives and societies we are studying. By all means, you can and should make use of secondary sources to inform your interpretation of primary sources. But do not simply rely on others’ interpretations and analysis.

Use primary sources whenever possible, even if your prof has not explicitly told you do to so. This will make it possible for you to be more effective in forming your own ideas, analysis, and interpretation, which is of course the whole point of writing an essay in the first place!

Key Points:

  • make sure you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. If you are unsure, talk to your prof. If you are then still unclear, send me an email and I’ll be glad to help you out
  • whenever possible, make use of primary sources in your research – don’t just rely on textbooks, monographs and journal articles

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