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HIST 165: Slavery, Race, and Rights in American History

Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources offer original information about a particular time, place, or event that have not undergone any sort of evaluation or interpretation. Typically primary source materials are created in the time period they are about, but Primary sources may also include materials that were created by a witness of a time period or event, but at a later date. Examples of these types of primary sources include autobiographies and oral interviews. Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries and Autobiographies
  • Maps
  • Photographs
  • Newspaper articles
  • Court records and legal documents
  • Letters
  • Plays
  • Wills

The above list is not exhaustive. A primary source can be virtually anything created during the time period you are studying.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources are journal articles or books that offer an evaluation or opinion on data gathered from primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Journal or news paper articles written about a historic event
  • Bibliographies
  • Books or monographs about a historic event

Secondary sources can be a useful way to locate primary source. If you find a journal article on your research topic, the primary sources the author used will be cited in the bibliography.

Scholarly vs. Popular Secondary Sources

When doing research it is important to know the difference between scholarly and popular source. Both are useful to your research, but for different reasons. There are a number of differences between scholarly and popular sources, which you can see described below. If you are unsure if a source is scholarly or popular just ask a librarian or your professor!


General Characteristics of Scholarly Sources

Target Audience: Scholars, researchers, and students in a given discipline or field. 

Purpose: To share the outcomes of research to other researchers, scholars, and students in the field. To further knowledge in a given discipline or field. 

Scope: Narrow focus on a specific discipline or smaller sub-field. 

Illustrations: Few or no illustrations. Illustrations will be charts, graphs, and figures directly related to the content of the text. 

Authors: Scholars, researchers, and sometimes students in a given discipline or field. The author will usually have an institutional affiliation. 

Sources: Articles will have many, formally cited sources. Listed as footnotes and/or in the bibliography.

Advertisements (if present): No, to few advertisements. Advertisements will be limited to books, journals, publishers, conferences, and other things specific to the field or discipline of the journal. 

Article Length: Long articles, can be between 10 - 30 pages. 

Editorial Process: Articles will have been peer-reviewed by other experts in the field to improve the content of the article.


General Characteristics of Popular Sources

Target Audience: The general public.

Purpose: To entertain and/or educate members of the general public.

Scope: Broad focus across disciplines. 

Illustrations: Many, colorful photographs or illustrations, that may or may not be directly related to the content of the text. (note: popular books may not have abundant photographs or illustrations). 

Authors: Journalists, lay-people, sometimes experts in a field. 

Sources: Sources may or may not be named. Sources will probably not be formally cited.

Advertisements (if present): Many, colorful advertisements that may or may not be related to the subject of the magazine. 

Article length: Shorter articles. 1 - 5 pages.