Primary and Secondary Sources

Manuscript letter of May 21, 1861 Updated 18-Jan-2005


are generated by people who lived at the time and place under study. These firsthand, eyewitness accounts comre from people who saw or participated in the historical events being analyzed. Historians rely on such materials as their data or evidence to create an understanding or interpretation of past events. The good historian links his/her interpretation of the past directly to evidence from the past. The easiest and most effective means of doing this is to quote directly from the primary sources. Primary sources might include:
  • Physical Artifacts, such as tools, weapons, machines, toys, uniforms, tombstones
  • Visual Images, such as photographs, film, video, paintings, sculpture, cave drawings, maps
  • Oral and audio histories, including live interviews and audio recordings, songs, poems
  • Statistics, such as census data, figures on the economy, land surveys, account books
  • Printed text documents, such as cookbooks, traveler's reports, advertisements, memoirs, government publications
  • Manuscript (handwritten) documents, such as diaries, journals, letters, such as the letter above, dated May 21,1861.

  1. We gain and hone important intellectual skills in exploring the past through primary sources. We see that all written history reflects an author's personal viewpoint on past events. Therefore, as we read historical accounts, we recognize their subjective nature. We must be aware of bias, poor memory, and other possible flaws in the account. We must be aware of ethnocentrism in the documents as well as in ourselves.
  2. We should be diligent in looking for flaws or shortcomings in our historical evidence. Apply these Tests of Historical Evidence to any documents or other sources that you consider using. We must gather a significant range and number of documents to create a credible interpretation.
  3. Through primary sources, we directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, in using primary sources, we develop important analytical skills and critical thinking. [Some of the prior points are based on "History in the Raw," developed by the National Archives and Records Administration.]


come later, written after the fact by persons not actually present during the historical time under discussion. Most of the textbooks that you read in school are secondary sources. Good historians combine a wide range of primary sources with a careful reading of the ideas of other scholars in secondary sources. Among secondary sources, we prefer SCHOLARLY sources. Scholarly books and articles use footnotes or endnotes to show where the information comes from. Scholarly sources, written by experts in the field, undergo a rigorous process of review and criticism by anonymous, informed referees. Because scholarly publications are supported by foundations and professional organizations, they do not have to pander to fads, whims, and tastes of the pop market place. Thus they have higher reliability and credibility than pop culture sources. If you want unsubstantiated opinion, tune in talk radio. If you want expertise, go to scholarly journals and books.
Use the link below to research issues in Latin American history and culture. These are the most important research tools for the field.

Essential Finding Aids for Research in Latin American History