Using Primary Sources

Primary Sources are firsthand accounts. A primary source is something created at or very near the time an event took place by a participant in the event. Primary sources are often described as being “contemporary”, meaning “at the same time.” Primary sources are usually created by someone with direct personal knowledge of what is being described.

Some examples of primary sources include: letters/telegrams, photographs, interviews, diaries/journals, maps, transcripts of spoken events, sound, film, and video recordings. The collections used in Westward Migration include letters, stereocards, photographs and a map. Examples are shown below.

Secondary Sources, on the other hand, are secondhand accounts. A secondary source conveys information that was originally presented elsewhere or by someone else. Secondary sources often contain synthesis, analysis, interpretation, or involve other activities used to draw conclusions, make comparisons, or summarize events. Secondary sources are usually developed by someone who does not have direct personal knowledge of what is being described.

Some examples of secondary sources are: textbooks, encyclopedias, journal articles, movies, websites, biographies

One should always keep in mind the context in which a source is being used to determine whether or not it should be considered a primary or a secondary source.

The descriptions above are far from exhaustive and are meant to serve as a first introduction to the differences between primary and secondary source material.