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Primary vs. Secondary Sources

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  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources


    You've probably learned the distinction between primary and secondary sources in your history courses, but for an additional quick review, spend three minutes reviewing with the great Powtoon video below:


    Earlier in this session, you read an encyclopedia entry all about Martin Luther King’s life.  While that entry gave you a lot of critical details about King, it really can’t give you the more detailed information that a researcher needs in order to gain an in-depth understanding of a person and what made them tick.  

    Ultimately, an encyclopedia entry is limited because it’s a secondary source, a source that is second-hand and has been pre-digested by another researcher, with only the information that they felt was critical. It was created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching.  Examples include: textbooks, essay, reviews, articles, encyclopedia, commentaries, analysis and criticisms.   

    Since a new researcher is looking for new information, good research always involves looking at other types of documents, primary sources.  primary source (or primary document) is information that is original to the topic of your research. It provides first-hand testimony or direct evidence about a topic. They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events. In this case, when you’re researching a historical figure, anything written by that person is a primary source.  Letters, journals, speeches, articles, books, memoirs and autobiographies written by that person all give us a much richer understanding of who the person was and what they stood for. Creative works written or created by your historical figure also are primary resources, such as plays, songs, paintings and photographsData and surveys are also primary sources.

    Although secondary sources can be excellent sources of information, a good researcher will look for a combination of both primary and secondary documents to get a richer understanding of the topic.

    Think about those differences to contribute to the discussion on the next page and continue on to see how important those primary documents can become!