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General History Guide

This Guide serves as an introduction to General History Sources for History and Non-History Majors

It is important to distinguish between primary and secondary source material. On this page, you will find a brief guide to understanding the differences between these two types of sources and where to find both primary and secondary materials in the library.

STEP 4: PRIMARY & SECONDARY SOURCES

Primary Source Documents:

Someone who is the “first person” creates primary sources; these documents can also be called “original source documents.”  The author or creator is presenting original materials as a result of discovery or to share new information or opinions. Others have not filtered primary documents through interpretation or evaluation. In order to get a complete picture of an event or era, it is necessary to consult multiple—and often contradictory—sources  (i.e., letters, journals, interviews, speeches, photos, paintings, etc.).  Research studies written by the researchers who conducted the study are primary sources in the sciences.

Secondary Source Documents:

Materials that are produced with the benefit of hindsight and materials that filter primary sources through interpretation or evaluation. Books commenting on a historical incident in history are secondary sources. Political cartoons can be tricky because they can be considered either primary or secondary.  Articles, books, or other documents discussing research that was not conducted by the writer(s) are secondary sources in the sciences.

Chart by Grossmont College Library

OPVL is an effective tool to analyze primary and secondary source documents.

Origin

Origin is where the source comes from.

  • Who is the author/artist?
  • What date it was written/finished?
  • In which country the author/artist was born?
  • Where was the source was produced?
  • In, which format (newspaper, book, letter, etc.), was the source first presented?
  • Is the source a primary or secondary source?
  • What was the historic context in which the source was created?
  • Is there anything known about the author that is pertinent to the evaluation?

Purpose

Purpose is where you have to put yourself in the author/artist's shoes. The purpose should relate to the origin of the source.

  • What do you think the author was trying to communicate to readers?
  • What ideas/feelings was the author trying to express/evoke? What was the intent of the author?
  • Why did the author create this document?  Why does it exist?
  • Who is the intended audience of this source?
  • The purpose is especially important when it comes to pieces of propaganda as sources.

Value

Value is how valuable this source is. Basically it's linked to the amount of bias in the source:  the more bias = the less valuable (usually). Primary sources are obviously more valuable than secondary/tertiary ones.

  • What value does this source have that might not be available elsewhere?
  • What can one tell about the author/time period because of this source?
  • What was going on in history when this source was created? What new information does this piece bring to the understanding of the topic?

Limitations

Limitations is also linked to bias, each source will be at least a little biased and thus they are limited by that. Do not state bias alone as a limitation. All sources have bias.

  • Has the source has been translated from the original? (i.e., Hitler's diary entry was  translated into English by a historian and you're using the historian's book as a source)  If so, then the language difference will be another source of inaccuracy and a limitation.
  • What information was not available to the author when the source was created?
  • Did the author get the information from a reliable source?
  • Does the author have reason to emphasize certain facts over other facts?  How might the source be different if it were presented to another audience?
  • What specific information might the author has chosen to leave out?
  • Does the author concede that a certain point as is inconvenient for the author to admit?
  • How might the historical context in which the document was created influence the interpretation of the document?

Primary Sources

More Options

Select an Archival or Primary Source Database from the list below:

Secondary (Biographical) Sources

More Options

Select a Biographical Database from the list below to continue your research:

Credo Information Literacy