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World History - Indianapolis

Understanding Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources

          Primary sources are first-hand accounts created by participants in or witnesses to a particular event. The writers of these accounts are CONTEMPORARY to the event. Examples of primary sources include diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, interviews, transcripts of oral history sessions, treaties, church records, census records, photographs, maps, and certain government publications. 

          Secondary sources are documents based upon or derived from primary sources. There are many examples of secondary sources, including books which summarize previous research, or interpret or analyze primary sources. Books are an ESSENTIAL element in the research process.

Evaluating Historic Documents

Use the following questions to help you evaluate a historic document:

  • What type of document is it?
  • When was the document written?
  • What is the author's name and background?  
    • What are the author's opinion and beliefs? Could these have influenced his/her writings?
  • What is the author's knowledge of event
    • Did the author witness or take part in the event?Or is the document based on what others heard and saw?
  • What is the document's historical context?
  • What is the document's main points?
  • What is the document's tone?
  • What is the reason the document was created?
    • Did the author want to inform or pursuade others? Are there any words that lead you to believe that the author is biased?
  • What was the document's purpose?
    • Was it intended for a large or small audience? Was it published or unpublished?
  • Who was the intended/likely audience?
  • What is the interpretation of the document?
    • How is the document interpreted today? Does your knowledge of a past event influence your interpretation of this document?
    • How was the document interpreted at the time it was written/published?