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330-701-MS: Arts & Science: History of Western Civilization (Dickson): Primary and secondary sources

This guide contains a resources and research tips intended to help Arts and Science students with their assignments in professor Jennifer Dickson's History Western Civilization course for Arts & Science students.

Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are firsthand accounts of events, ideas, or statements. They are usually created at the time of an event or very soon after.

Primary sources can come in many different forms, including diaries, letters, photographs, art, maps, video and film, sound recordings, interviews, newspapers, magazines, novels, poems, short stories, autobiographies, or memoirs. The exact form of a primary source is not important. It is the content and context of the material that makes it a primary source.  For example, a novel written in 2012 about the Peloponnesian War isn’t a primary source for information about the Peloponnesian War (unless the author is somehow over two thousand years old). However, the same novel is a primary source for information about the author’s ideas, philosophy, and writing style.

When trying to identify a Primary Source, ask yourself:

  • Was it created at the time of an event, or very soon after?
  • Was it created by someone who saw or heard an event themselves?
  • Is it a personal record of an event?

If you answer to any of the above is “yes,” then it is likely that you are looking at a Primary Source.


What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources report, describe, comment on, or analyze the experiences or work of others.

A secondary source is at least once removed from the primary source. It reports on the original work, the direct observation, or the firsthand experience. It will often use primary sources as examples.

Secondary sources can include books, textbooks, newspapers, biographies, journal articles, movies and magazines. As with primary sources, the format is less important than the information being presented. If the source seeks to report, describe, comment on or analyze an original work, direct observation, or firsthand experience of another person, it is a secondary source.



Eamon, Michael. “Defining Primary and Secondary Sources.” Library and Archives Canada. Library and Archives Canada,

27 May 2010. Web. 29 April 2013

Payton, Melissa. The Prentice Hall Guide to Evaluating Online Resources with Research Navigator 2004.

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2004. Print.

Online primary sources

The following is a list of online resources for primary sources in history:

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