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Early American History: Primary vs. Secondary

A guide to resources on Early American History.

Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document or artifact from the time period that you are studying. For example, the text from a manuscript originally written in the 1492 is a primary source, as is a representation of a painting from 1645. Other primary sources include:

  • Diaries
  • Journals
  • Newspaper articles (from the time period)
  • Speeches given during the time period
  • Legal documents
  • Immigration records


Where can I find primary sources?

You can find many primary sources online (see the links in this guide). You can also find primary sources in translation in books in the library, in textbooks, and in your course reader. You will also run into primary source quotes in good secondary sources. 


How do I evaluate a primary source?

Never assume that any primary source is going to tell you “the truth.” People in the past rarely wrote or made something because they wanted to provide future historians with “factual” evidence. You should approach a primary source with some key questions in mind:

• What is it? (i.e., what was the function of the document or object?)

• Who made it, and why?

• When and where was it made, and how does it reflect or relate to its historical context?


How should I use primary sources in my papers?

Primary sources are called “primary” because they are the first and most important kind of evidence used by professional historians. That said, in lower-level courses and for shorter papers, students are usually expected to use more secondary than primary sources. For upper-level courses and research papers, students are usually expected to engage equally with both kinds of sources. For independent research and honors, students should plan to engage heavily with primary sources. 

Secondary Sources

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is written about primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, scholarly articles, books, some films (e.g. documentaries), and online material. For more on secondary sources, see Rampolla 6-10.

How do I evaluate a secondary source?

Secondary sources range from fairly reliable to utterly misleading to blatantly false. Even the best secondary sources should be approached critically, with some key questions in mind:

• Who made it, and why?

Who published or disseminated it?

What audience is it aimed at?   

• When and where was it made, and how does it reflect or relate to its historical context?

• What primary source evidence was used?

• Does the author's argument stand up to logical scrutiny?


What does it mean when the database or website is called an index or bibliography?

An index or bibliography provides a listing/abstracts about primary and secondary sources and helps you to locate them. As an online resource, most indices or bibliographies allow you to type in a keyword for searching and will then retrieve a list of possibilities. As the researcher, it is your job to take the next step and find the book or article.


How do I find a book or article that comes up in an index or database without full-text?

The easiest way to find a book or article is to search for it by title in Myrin Library's OneSearch system.  Be sure you are doing a title, rather than a keyword, search, and the system will let you know whether we have access to the book or article in either print or electronic format.  If we do not have access to the work in any medium, you will be presented with the option to request the item via interlibrary loan.


Common mistakes and how to avoid them

• Problem: mistaking a popular history book for an academic or scholarly history book.

Solution: pay attention to the identity of the author and the publisher. Check the introduction and/or back cover copy; many times you will see clues to the intended audience.

• Problem: assuming that because something is online, it is credible.

Solution: be careful and cautious when using secondary sources that are only available online (i.e., this does not include books or articles that are also available in print form). Is the author of the material identified—what is his/her identity? Who is hosting the webpage—a university or a different kind of organization? What are the aims of that host? Are there citations (footnotes, links, etc.)—do the citations check out? For more, read Rampolla 19-21.