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Mary Linden Sepulveda

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Mary Sepulveda

Coordinator of Collection Development, Special Collections & Archives

What Distinguishes Primary and Secondary Documents?

Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources

Types of Sources Definition Characteristics Examples
Primary Original documents created or experienced concurrently with the event being researched. First hand observations, contemporary accounts of the event. Viewpoint of the time. Interviews, news footage, data sets, original research, speeches, diaries, letters, creative works, photographs, film
Secondary Works that analyze, assess, or interpret a historical event, an era, or a phenomenon. Generally uses primary sources. Interpretation of information, usually written well after an event. Offers reviews or critiques. Research studies, literary criticism, book reviews, biographies, monographs, textbooks
Tertiary Sources that identify, locate, and synthesize primary AND secondary sources. Reference works, collections of lists of primary and secondary sources, finding tools for sources. Encyclopedias, bibliographies, dictionaries, manuals, textbooks, fact books

What Types of Documents Am I Looking For?

Think about the types of records or documents that would have been created at the time period surrounding events and issues related to your topic. 

Guiding questions (primary sources appear in parentheses): 

  • What was life/society like at the time?  (magazines, chronicles, newspapers, artworks)
  • What were the experience, beliefs, or priorities of relevant individuals / groups / organizations at the time? (autobiographies, interviews, diaries, letters, advertisements, manifestos)
  • What was the government attitude? What was the government of the day saying? (proclamations, monuments, records of debates, legislation, law codes)
  • How many people were involved in or affected by this issue / event? (statistics, official records, estimates based on material culture or remains)
  • What were people being told, what did they communicate? (newspapers, artworks, photographs, letters, secret communications)
  • What did things look like? (artwork, photographs, guide books for tourists, illustrations, postcards)

Questions, Reflections on Your Selected Primary Source

Questions to reflect on when you read primary sources :

-Who is writing the source and for whom are they writing? Who has voice in the events? 

-What do we learn about the audience from the tone or content?

-What information is learned from the author's position or political view?

-What events or factors are NOT recorded (what was absent in the account and why?)

-Where was the source produced, local, regional, international?

-When was the source created  (time of war, peace, cultural change)?

-How would you describe the source: neutral, biased? 

-How does the author represent the "other"?  Does the author mention racial, class or gender differences?