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History Research Guide: Primary and Secondary Sources

This guide is to help students and faculty who are interested in studying history. You will find suggestions for finding books, articles, and other research resources in history.

Primary Sources..I'm First!

A primary source is a document or record containing firsthand accounts of an historical event. Often it's material created by witnesses or participants in the event. Some examples of primary sources are orgininal manuscripts, diaries, letters,  journals, public records, newspaper accounts, eyewitness accounts, interviews. They may be published or unpublished. Primary sources can often be found in archives or special collections. Ask for help in locating and using them at the Archer Library.



How To Find Primary Sources in the Library?

Use the Library's catalogue Quick Find.  Do a keyword search that describe your topic together with any or some of the following words:






Journal Letter/Letters

Personal narratives

Public opinion



Example: hitler and (diaries or correspondence)

"war of 1812" and sources

Obama and interviews

What's the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?



Many history students wonder about the difference between primary and secondary sources when doing research.

I've given you a quick guide on this page.

Primary Sources..Or Are They?

In  1983 the West German magazine Stern published excerpts from what they claimed were the diaries of Adolph HItler.  The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books covering the period 1932 to 1945. The West German Bundesarchiv eventually revealed that the so-called Hitler Diaries were "grotesquely superficial fakes" written on modern paper with modern ink and full of historical inaccuracies.  Experts declared the diaries bad forgeries but a great hoax.  The diaries were actually written by Konrad Kujau a notorious Stuttgart forger.  He was sentenced to 4 years in prison for forgery and embezzlement.

Archivists are always on the alert for primary source materials that could be fakes. They are trained to investigate the "provenence" of documents, that is, where they came from and who actually owned them.




Secondary Sources..I'm Second!

A secondary source is any published record or document that is one step removed from the original source. It usually describes, summarizes or analyzes a subject or event. Examples are is a book about World War Two or a critical analyzis of Prime Minister Trudeau.  It's a second person account an historical event, or individual published after the fact.  Confused?  

Hey I just read a book about President Bill Clinton. It's a biography written by an author and it's a secondary source!