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Primary Sources (African American History): An Overview of Primary Sources

Primary and Secondary sources

What is the difference between a Primary and Secondary source?

Primary sources are documents that were created by an individual or a group of individuals who witnessed an event, time period or topic first hand. For those researching historical events, they are also characterized by having been written close to the time of the event. For example, a diary written by a Civil War soldier would be an excellent primary source for someone researching the battlefield conditions during that war. It is an account created by someone who actually experienced said conditions.

For historians, documents created close to the time of the event also count as primary sources. A 1863 newspaper article reporting on battlefield conditions during the Civil War would also count as a primary source. It was not written by a soldier actively participating in the war, but it was written during the time that it was going on. We can assume that it provides some context about public perceptions of the war, an accurate description of the event in question, and possibly some quotes from combatants or military officers.

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Photographs
  • Letters
  • Diaries, personal journals and logs
  • Reports issued by private or governing institutions
  • Newspaper, magazine, and journal articles that were written at the time of the event
  • Autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Legal documents and transcripts

Secondary sources are materials created years after the historical event, time period, or topic that it is addressing has passed. They are written by people researching or reflecting on a topic without having seen it first-hand, and both heavily summarize and draw quotes from primary sources.

Some examples of Secondary sources include:

  • Biographies
  • Textbooks
  • Reference books
  • Modern non-fiction history books
  • Newspaper, magazine, and journal articles that were written a long time after the event in question
  • Documentaries