Day 25: Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source was written by someone with firsthand, eyewitness information. An article written by a reporter who witnessed an event, a memoir or autobiography, a letter, an ad in a newspaper from an earlier time period, a government document, an opinionated pamphlet circulated at the time of an event, photographs–all of these are primary sources.
Later on, a historian will dig up old newspaper articles, memoirs, etc. and write a summary of the event. He, of course, was not there, but he researched and based his summary on primary sources. This new summary is a secondary source. In fact, other authors may keep writing about the same event, consulting both the primary sources and some of the other secondary sources. All of these works will be secondary sources.
Most of the history books you read will probably be secondary sources, but it is well worth finding primary sources to add to your studies!
Sometimes primary sources will have been written by well-educated men from another era (such as the Declaration of Independence), and your student will need well-developed vocabulary and reading skills, such as the skill of picking out the main idea.
Here are some resources for finding primary sources:
Primary Source Documents
You can probably find most any primary source document online, often complete with photographs of the real thing and lesson plans or discussion questions. What follows are a few go-to locations for primary sources.
RESOURCE: Paul Hallsall from Fordham University has compiled huge chronological lists of primary sources.
RESOURCE: American Memory from the Library of Congress contains a great deal of American primary sources.
RESOURCE: Repositories of Primary Sources is a gigantic list of primary source repositories. You can view them by region and definitely find sources for any part of the world. For instance, they list 58 websites just for Austria alone. (Many of the sites listed for non-English speaking countries are not in English, of course, but can easily be translated in your browser, but those for the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, etc. are.) There are also tons and tons of sites listed for every one of the 50 States. They have posted a notice that at the beginning of 2015, they will no longer be updating the listings; however, it should still be an extremely useful directory for years to come.
Historic Photos & Videos
If you haven’t searched extensively, you probably had no idea how very many historic paintings, photographs, and even videos exist for any given topic. The best (and least overwhelming) method of finding these is to search for them by topic as you come to that topic. If you are studying WWI, go to YouTube and search for “World War I Footage.” You might come across this footage posted on the British Pathé website. If you are studying Elizabeth I, be sure to search for “Elizabeth I” on Wikimedia Commons (the image library part of Wikipedia) to see seven portraits of her instead of just the one on the biography cover.
RESOURCE: British Pathé posts a great deal of historic footage on YouTube. Subscribe to their channel for updates.
RESOURCE: Some websites, like the Library of Congress, have vast collections of historic photographs. You state most likely has a huge collection relating to your state’s history (Florida Memory has 180,000 digitized photos, for example.) If you are studying local history, try finding a state or local photo collection and see if you can find early photos of downtown areas nearby.
RESOURCE: Archive.org has texts, videos, and pictures.