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LIFE HIST 211: US History to 1865: Home

Slides from class

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

Subject Guide

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Becky Canovan
Contact:
Office: L200
Second floor near water fountain
bcanovan@dbq.edu
563-589-3649

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

Search tips

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.

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.