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HON122 - Senecal

Dr. Senecal: Honors World History I
Finding Primary and Secondary Sources Tutorial

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Distinguishing Primary and Secondary Sources in History Research

The fundamental distinction between primary and secondary sources involves the difference between original data and later analysis. In various academic majors, this takes on distinct forms. For example, in fields such as Biology or Psychology, the original data often take the form of experiments. The  primary sources in these fields are the sources in which that data is reported and analyzed by the researcher - peer-reviewed journal articles.

In the humanities and history, the original data sources are typically the cultural artifacts produced at the time of the person, place, event, organization, cultural practice, or artistic composition that is being studied. Journal articles are typically secondary sources, a very important place for interpretation of the data. Greatest importance is given to the those materials created by the central persons in the study, but other materials from the time period are also important. Time is the most important factor - in historical research, materials from the time period being studied have the most value as primary sources.

In the ancient and medieval world, what might primary sources look like?

  • Ancient Documents - letters, diaries, reports, financial records, historical accounts, biographies

  • Ancient Artifacts - public buildings, homes, vases, cooking utensils, sculptures, decorative art, coins

For our purposes, this material, or photographs or artistic renditions of it, will be found in published books, periodicals, artifact databases, and ancient and medieval history websites.