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Women's History

Primary vs Secondary Sources

PRIMARY Sources:

  • First-hand accounts by people who experienced event.
  • A person's account of own feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that comes directly from person/place/event researched.


  • Second-hand accounts by people who did not experience event.
  • One person's account of someone else's feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that originates much later than person/place/event researched.
  • Contains INTERPRETATIONS, analysis, synthesis.

Content Versus Format:

  • Is a newspaper always primary, and is a book always secondary? NO.
  • "Primary" and "secondary" relate to the CONTENT, not the format.
  • Primary sources OFTEN appear in document types such as letters and newspapers, but a source doesn't have to be primary just because of its format. The same is true of sources on paper versus sources on the Internet, and sources which are duplicated as they appear (by scanning or photographing) versus sources which are transcribed (retyped word for word in plain text) -- it's the content that counts.

It's All About CONTEXT:

  • There is nothing inherent in a document or object that automatically makes it always "primary" or "secondary."
  • YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION determines whether the source is primary or secondary for YOUR research.
  • The same document could be a primary source for one paper and a secondary source for another paper.
  • Example: 1975 biography about Abraham Lincoln would probably be a...
    -- Secondary source if you are studying Lincoln’s life.
    -- Primary source if you are studying how people wrote historical biographies in the 1970s.

How to Evaluate a Source

First, read the source!! Then ask yourself:

  1. What kind of document/object is this?
  2. Who created it? What is his role/occupation?
  3. When was it written/created? (And when was the event I am researching?)
  4. What information does this source convey?

Try to fill in this sentence: "This is a _____ written by ____, who is ____. It was written in ____ and it contains _____."

Then read that sentence aloud and ask yourself: Primary or Secondary?

Content courtesy of Erin Cassidy, Sam Houston State University Library 2013

So, Basically...

Primary sources convey first-hand experience of the event or time period you’re studying.

Secondary sources convey the experiences of others, or “second-hand” information; they often synthesize a collection of primary sources.

Content courtesy of Erin Cassidy, Sam Houston State University Library 2013

Searching Tip: Which word(s) to use?

When searching, especially for primary sources, consider: what words would have been used in the time and place that you are studying?

Example 1: Although African American is a standard term today, people at different times in the past may have used the terms Afro-American, black, colored, Negro, African, slave, etc. to refer to a similar group of individuals.

Example 2: What we today call the American Civil War may have been referred to in its own time as the war of the Rebellion, the war between the states, the war of Northern aggression, etc.

Try swapping terms in your search to make sure you are targeting the right historical language.

Content courtesy of Erin Cassidy, Sam Houston State University Library 2013

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