How do students and historians gain an understanding of events in
the past? They do it through consulting sources (usually a document
of some kind). Sources include books, photographs, letters, diaries,
newspaper articles, magazines and journals, sound recordings, web
sites, and e-mail messages.
Historians and other students of the past divide documents into two
main categories: Primary Sources and Secondary Sources. When trying
to understand events in the past, it is critical for you to know
which type of source you are dealing with.
A Primary Source is a document that was created at or near the time
of the event that it discusses. Often it is the account of a participant
or eyewitness to an event. Examples of primary sources are letters,
diaries, laws and other acts of governments, e-mail messages, recordings,
and newspaper articles. Primary sources can be either published or
unpublished. A handwritten letter from an American soldier in Afghanistan
to someone back home would be an unpublished primary source for a
future historian of the war in Afghanistan. If a book publisher collected
a number of soldiers' letters and printed them as a book, each letter
in the book would be a published primary source.
Secondary Sources are accounts of events written by historians or
other observers, after or at some distance from the event itself.
A history of the American Revolution (1775-1783) written in 2002
or 1890 would be a Secondary Source. In most cases, Secondary Sources
offer explanations and interpretations of historical events. These
interpretations usually are based on a study of Primary Sources.
As an example, imagine that you wanted to learn about the surrender
of the British army at Yorktown in 1781. It would be nice to be able
to hear a recording of an interview with the generals and soldiers
who took part in the battle. Because sound recordings did not exist
in this period, we generally have to rely on written primary sources.
Some written primary sources that you might consult would be the
reports of the commanders of the two armies, the text of the surrender
agreement, letters and diaries of soldiers in each army, and newspaper
accounts of the surrender in American and British newspapers. Secondary
sources would include histories of the American Revolution or books
or encyclopedia articles (on-line or printed) on the Yorktown campaign.
Historians and students need to view all kinds of sources with a
critical eye. With Primary Sources, you should ask questions of yourself
like: Was the author of this document in a good position to observe
what she is writing about? Were there other observers of the battle
who for one reason or another were unable to write down what they
saw? Are there other ways to reconstruct their perspectives? With
both Primary and Secondary Sources, you should always ask whether
the author is biased in some way-does the author have a point he
is trying to prove? Always think about where the author is coming
from. For example, imagine a historian is studying the career of
Eminem. She has before her the following: an article on Eminem in
People magazine; a press release from Eminem's record label; and
the text of the "Communications Decency Act." The authors
of each document have distinct points of view, possibly biases. You
as a student should think through what those points of view and biases
Remember that the form a document appears in does not define its
nature as Primary or Secondary. A Secondary Source is almost always
a published document. A Primary Source can be published or unpublished.
Just because something is printed between the covers a book, it is
not necessarily a Secondary Source. Often diaries, letters, public
laws and the like are published. They are still Primary Sources.