Primary and Secondary Sources
by Susan McGowan
1. Primary source documents are those written
at the time of the period under study.
2. Taken together, primary sources provide evidence
that later historians use to interpret history.
3. Primary sources are the building blocks of
historical scholarship. What are they?
- Official/Legal Personal Financial Communications
- government records letters invoices newspapers
- deeds diaries bills advertisements
- wills journals ship records/logs broadsides
- inventories travel logs account books maps
- court documents
- military records
- tax records
- census records
"Interrogating" Primary Sources:
In order to effectively use primary source materials
we must ask questions of them to reveal information contained within
1. Who wrote this document, and what does this
tell us about their perspective?
a. What was this person's "point of entry"
into the world?
b. What was this person's role in their society?
(government official, minister, merchant, midwife, land owner,
c. What was this person's world-view (religious
perspective, economic interests, political ideology) based on
who they are?
d. What might be this author's social status
2. Knowing what we know about this person, why
do you think he/she wrote this document?
3. Who was the intended audience for this document?
What were its uses?
4. What was the cultural and historical context
and the environment in which this document was written?
a. What was the political climate at the time?
Was it written during a time of war? Was this a time of great
change, or were the dominant groups working to keep the status
b. What assumptions did that author's society
hold about people of color?
c. What were the roles and expectations of
men and of women at that time?
Secondary sources are written "after the
fact" - that is, at a later date.
Usually the author of a secondary source will
have studied the primary sources of an historical period or event
and will then interpret the "evidence" found in these
sources into what he/she believes is a coherent history based on
what he/she believes happened.
Like cultural practices and beliefs, historic
interpretations change over time. As with primary sources, we should
interrogate the secondary sources with the same questions. Caveat:
Prior to 1960, historical narratives were often
written from the dominant cultural perspective. The history and
perspective of people of color, women, and working classes were
often considered either not important enough to include or were
written to justify the social structure as it was. (the winners
write the history)
Since 1960, scholars in many fields of history,
anthropology, archeology began asking new questions of the primary
sources and discovering new sources. This work uncovered new understandings
about these groups, and the stories they told began to be more
complex, from different points of view.
*** It is important to look at when a document
was written, whether it is primary or secondary, and place that
document in its historical context.