Using Primary Sources

Using primary and secondary sources to unravel the past is at the heart of NHD’s approach. You’re familiar with secondary sources because you rely on them all the time—for example, your textbook, the news you hear on the television, an article you read online. However, secondary sources deliver information based on someone else’s interpretation and perspective. To be a really good historian, you have to know how to find and analyze primary sources, which allow you to learn about the past in challenging, thoughtful, and authentic ways.

Definitions vary for the terms "primary" and "secondary" source. Florida History Day uses a broad definition that includes a wide variety of original material.

  • Primary source:  documents, records, and other evidence that are original to the time period, culture, or event under study and that are not derived from another source. In other words, they were created as part of the historical event.
  • Secondary source:  documents, records, and other evidence that are derived from original sources and that analyze or interpret a time period, culture, or event. In other words, they were created by someone who did not experience the event or situation firsthand.

Among the materials that constitute primary sources are written documents and records (institutional, commercial, scholarly, and personal), books, artifacts, buildings, structures, maps, artworks, photographs, film and audio recordings, narratives, oral histories, legends, music, dance, folkways, people, and—in some cases—landscapes. Wow! What a selection! The sources for these materials are varied, and good historians do not depend solely on what they find on the Internet. See Finding Primary Sources for examples of online primary sources and lesson plans.

The Student Connection

Finding, analyzing, and interpreting primary sources are integral steps in your History Day research. Some topics—for example, those relating to a very important person—will have lots of related materials that often are housed in one or more large collections. Other topics that are more obscure may require some real detective work to find written materials, track down associated artifacts, or find informants who can give firsthand accounts.

When beginning the research process, start with secondary sources, which provide an overview of the situation being studied, the names of the major "players" and key dates, and a summary of the importance of the situation. In addition, the bibliography in a secondary work usually lists the primary sources that the author used. This list can serve as a starting place for your research.

In the same way that a detective looks for clues at a crime scene to identify a suspect, historians look for evidence and details in primary sources to reconstruct past people, events, and ideas. To analyze a primary source effectively, you have to ask questions about the author, the physical nature of the source, and the era in which, and reasons for which, it was created. For example, in the case of a document, some of the questions that you might ask are:

  • Who wrote it?
  • When, where, and why was it written?
  • For whom was it written?
  • How was it written or made?
  • What information or evidence did the author use?
  • What are the author's assumptions and conclusions?
Of course, you will ask different questions depending on the type of primary source that you are analyzing. Primary source analysis worksheets are available online from many sources to guide you through the inquiry process. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has developed analysis worksheets for artifacts, cartoons, documents, maps, photographs, posters, and sound. These can be found on the NARA web site. Other worksheets are available by Googling «Primary Source Worksheets».

Returning to the analogy of a crime scene, after a detective has analyzed the evidence, what happens next? He or she explains, or interprets, the meaning and significance of the evidence (and hopefully arrests a suspect!). Similarly, historians interpret the meaning of primary sources to reconstruct the behaviors, beliefs, and actions of people of the past and to understand how and why events took place. Again, asking questions is part of the process of reaching conclusions:

  • What historical questions are answered by this source?
  • What questions does the source not answer?
  • Does the source support or refute conclusions that you or other historians have reached?
  • What additional evidence would be useful?

You will discover that some sources can be both primary and secondary, depending on the questions you’re asking or thesis statement you’re trying to support. You’ll also find that the terms “analyze, interpret, and evaluate” sometimes are used interchangeably in discussions about primary and secondary sources. Regardless, as a historian, your job is to gather as much evidence as you can, look at all sides of the issue as you critically review the material, and draw conclusions about the causes, effects, and historical context of your topic.

Be Diverse!

Internet resources can facilitate history fair research, but you should remember that judges look for a balance among books, documents, interviews, websites, and other primary and secondary materials in an entry's annotated bibliography. You cannot become an effective historian if you only sit in front of your computer. You have to go to libraries, archives, and historic sites. You have to call people on the telephone or visit them in person.

Defining Primary Sources

Numerous websites exist that define and describe primary and secondary sources. Four excellent examples include: