Overview and research prompts by Joseph Gaudet
Primary sources are the foundation of a historian’s work. They are historical sources that were produced either at the time of the historical event or, if later, by an individual who witnessed or participated in the event. As such, they enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the event itself, without adding additional layers of interpretation and distance.
Primary sources come in all manner of genre, with the most typical being letters, journals, manuscripts, newspapers, court cases, petitions, interviews, speeches, photographs, audio recordings, and government reports. It is the historian’s job to analyze and interpret these sources, taking whatever contextual information she knows and evaluating the veracity and the import of the primary source. Then, the historian makes a determination of how this primary source fits into the larger historical picture, how it modifies, augments, or takes away from current interpretations.
A secondary source, on the other hand, is a source written after the event, by somebody not directly involved and who bases her interpretation upon the accounts of others. View our list of recommended readings and links.
Primary and secondary sources are critical for the work of a historian. Primary sources form the heart of historical inquiry because they are produced by individuals who lived through the events. They get us, as historians, as close as possible to the event itself. Secondary sources are also integral. Historical scholarship exists as a dialogue, an act of perpetual communication with others who are studying the past and with the larger public. The historian needs to be familiar with secondary sources so that they can participate in the dialogue, leveraging new interpretations of primary sources (or the discovery of previously unknown or unavailable primary sources) to modify or challenge the arguments put forth by other secondary sources.