Primary vs. Secondary Sources


What are primary and secondary sources?

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When you’re doing research about an event, person or period in history, you want to look for historical sources of information. Some sources are considered primary sources, and others are considered secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original records of what happened in the past. These are made by the people who participated in or witnessed the past. Primary sources offer a variety of points of view and perspectives of events, issues, people, and places. These records can be found anywhere—in a home, a government archive, etc.—the important thing to remember is they were used or created by someone with firsthand experience or witnessed an event. They are usually created at the time a specific event occurred. Sometimes, though, primary sources are told later by someone who witnessed the event. They sometimes show the witness’s opinion about an event.

Primary sources can be: letters, diaries, oral histories, memoirs, newspapers, magazines, interviews, music, photographs, videos, paintings, inventions, weapons, statistics, treaties, maps, laws, and more.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is something written about an event in the past using a primary source. They are written by people who did not experience an event in the past many years after it happened. The author of a secondary source will have studied the primary sources of a historical period or event and will then interpret the "evidence" found in these sources giving their opinion about the past. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information.

Secondary Sources can be: Biographies, documentaries, history textbooks, articles, books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and more.

Wait, Are Magazines and Newspapers Primary or Secondary Sources?

If you were reading carefully, you might have noticed newspaper and magazine articles can be primary or secondary sources. If the article was written at the time something happened, then it is a primary source. However, if it was written after the event or written using information from someone else it is a secondary source.

▫Example: A newspaper article written in 1861 announcing Abraham Lincoln was voted President is a primary source.

▫Example: A newspaper article written in 1965 that summarizing all the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln on the 100th anniversary of his death is a secondary source.


Imagine if you are writing a biography on Abraham Lincoln. Since you never met him you need to look up information about him.

This photograph on Lincoln, taken while he was alive, is a primary source.

This book, written by a historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2005 in a secondary source.

This letter written by Abraham Lincoln to Mr. Brayman on September 23, 1854 is a primary source.

This mini documentary on Lincoln is a secondary source because it was made many years after his death by people who have studies him. However, many of the images are primary sources.

This is the texts of a famous speech Abraham Lincoln gave called the Gettysburg Address. Even though this video was uploaded in 2011, it is a primary source because it has the original texts Lincoln gave in a speech on 1863.

Why do we use Primary and Secondary Sources?


Primary sources are useful because they provide a window into the past and we can see how people who lived during that period for ourselves, with no ones else's input. These unique documents and objects can give a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.

Some primary sources, like property deeds and census records, only state the facts. However, letters and diary entries often include a writer’s opinion about something in addition to the facts so we must understand the writers may not always be reliable. We have to question the creator's bias, purpose, and point of view. In addittion, Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context so we must use our knowledge of the past and read multiple primary sources to understand past events, which takes a lot of time. Reading primary sources allows us to question whether the history we have been told is correct, or allows us to have a better understanding of the past.


Secondary sources are useful because they provide us with analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the primary sources. They can give a lot of information at once. In essence, someone has already done a lot of research for you.Secondary sources are best for uncovering background or historical information about a topic and gives us different expert views of events and often bring together multiple primary sources for us.

However, just like primary sources, secondary sources could be unreliable and invalid. Secondary sources like textbooks and biographies are often largely factual, but they may also contain the opinions of the author. An author may use primary sources to shape a secondary source in a certain direction. For this reason, it’s important to think critically to distinguish impartial facts from biased opinion. Seconday Sources do not represent first-hand knowledge of a subject or event. Finally, there are so many secondary sources that finding good secondary sources can be difficult.

Discussion Questions

  • What is a primary source? Why do we use it?

  • What is a secondary source? Why do we use it?

  • How can you tell if a newspaper is a primary or secondary source?

Activity 1: What are the similarities and differences between primary and secondary sources?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the question in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Activity 2: Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

Determine if the source would be a Primary Source or a Secondary Source. Then explain your thinking as to why it is a Primary Source or a Secondary Source.

Extension Activities