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LIFE HIST 211: US History to 1865: Home

Secondary Sources: What are they?

What are secondary sources in history?

Secondary sources are documents written by historians, typically long after the event or era, to help explain, analyze, or retell a historical event or era. They help shine a light and provide a particular perspective or interpretation.

Examples include:

  • journal articles
  • newspaper articles (long after the fact)
  • books or textbooks
  • videos
  • websites

Finding Secondary Sources

Search tips

Searching for Secondary Sources

  • Searching for a specific year is effective. However searching for a decade or range of time is really difficult. This is because the computer programs are looking for an exact match to whatever you type, so if you search 1960s but the author says sixties, or even 60s, it won't return as a a positive result. If you're searching for an era, you're more likely to be successful searching for the name of it like Victorian Era or The Great Depression. 
  • When searching for people, use quotation marks around their name to get the system to search for the name as a phrase. Also be sure to check if their are alternate spellings of a person's name. 
  • Keep in mind that place names have also changed throughout history. You may need to search for both the contemporary name as well as the historical place name. 

Evaluating Secondary Sources

  • Who wrote or created it? What are their credentials? Degrees? How are they an expert? Are they connected to the group being talked about?
  • When was it written? How long after the initial event? Long enough to know the significance? What were the political, cultural, and social context of that period?
  • Who published it?  Are they scholarly? A university press? Or a popular-type press? Do they have an agenda?
  • Who is the audience? Academics? The public? School children? Politicians? Followers?
  • What did the author use as primary sources? Are there voices or perspectives missing? 
  • Do they reference their sources? Was it peer-reviewed or an edited work? 

Subject Guide

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Primary Sources: What are they?

What are primary sources in history?

Primary sources are documents, objects, or artifacts that were created during the time or event being studied, or were created by someone who witnessed or participated in it after the fact, for example, a memoir. They allow us to get as close as we can to what actually happened during a particular historical era or event. They are the raw materials historians study to use as evidence in a historical argument.

Examples include:

  • official government documents​ or original personal documents
  • pamphlets or posters
  • writings, letters, journals, or diaries
  • photographs or artwork
  • newspaper articles (from the time)

*In later eras this may also include interviews, digital photos, videos, or social media posts.​​​​​​

Primary Sources: Where to find them

Primary Sources: Search Tips and Evalution

Searching for Primary Sources

  • If you know the name of a particular document, search for that exact item. Be sure to use a reproduction or scan of the original document rather than readable computer made text, for your presentation.
  • Unlike secondary sources, searching for a broad topic may not be successful as many documents/objects may be titled with a specific name rather than a reference to the time period or event. Browsing to find an appropriate collection might be easier.
  • You can either select a source from a curated collection or search a larger collection. When searching, remember to consider terms and words that were appropriate for the era, or using any limiters or narrowing options provided by the database.

Evaluating Primary Sources

  • Who wrote or created it? A witness? The government? A person in power? A member of the group being talked about?
  • How close to the actual event? Timewise? Location-wise?
  • Who is the intended audience and purpose? Like-minded people? Leaders? To convince? To report? To scare?
  • Does it contain unspoken assumptions or later disproven ideas? Look at the social, scientific, or political context of the time
  • Any biases in language or publisher? Who paid to print it or distribute it? What biases are present?

Digital Archival Material (APA)

Digital Archival Material (APA)

*note: each line after the first line should be indented

Creator, A. (year or date). Title of artifact [format]. Name of archive. URL of object


Baldowski, C. (1955). De-lib-er-ate—deliberate speed? [Editorial cartoon]. Digital Library of Georgia. https://dlg.Usg.Edu/record/dlg_bald_am-902#item

WSB-TV. (1964, March 16). [WSB-TV newsfilm clip of demonstrators protesting school segregation and Malcolm X speaking in favor of the school boycott in New York City, New York.] [News clip]. Civil Rights Digital Library. 
[Partially barricaded street on campus at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.] [Photograph] (1963, June 11). Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection. 

*If there isn't a creator, put the title and format before the date in the citation. If there isn't a title, put a description of the item in [square brackets] instead. Also, if it is an interview, list the interviewee as creator.