Historians (for the most part) try to understand the context of events– what REALLY happened? In order to understand the context, they look at primary sources.
Primary sources are any items that were produced at the time of an event. They are original sources. They tell us what people at the time were doing, thinking, and feeling. These kinds of sources may include pamphlets, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, art, photos, speeches, recordings, court documents, or anything else that was produced during the time you are studying. Historians use these items to interpret the history and create theories for why things happened the way they did.
Secondary sources are the interpretations of history that use primary sources as evidence to support various theories. These often come in the form of history books, essays, commentaries, journal articles, newspaper articles, documentaries, or other kinds of items that use the primary sources as evidence for their interpretations.
So how can you tell which is which? Here’s a few ways to figure it out:
If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you are probably using a primary source.
Secondary sources might be a bit easier to identify:
If you find a bibliography, reference list, footnotes or endnotes, your document is probably a secondary source. If the item seems to be an interpretation of history, rather than an eye-witness account, then it is probably a secondary source.
Of course, if you have a question about whether an item is a primary or secondary source, ask your professor or a librarian.