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SOCC45: Youth and Society

Winter 2018

Definitions & Examples

Primary sources are documents or physical objects that were created during the time under study.

Secondary sources are written by scholars about a topicSecondary sources interpret primary sources and are written after an event or historical period has taken place.

Why should I use primary sources?

Primary sources provide a window into the past — unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period.

Primary sources provide the opportunity to witness a piece of history up close and to see it through the eyes of those who lived it.

First-hand accounts of an historic event allow you to form reasoned conclusions, base conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources.

Why should I use secondary sources?

Secondary sources complement primary sources: a secondary source can bring clarification and deeper understanding to a primary source.

A historian who has expertise in a specific time period can provide contextual information through a secondary source that allows a student to maximize his/her appreciation of the primary source's value.

Adapted from the Library of Congress, "Using Primary Sources"

Primary sources: 

  • Offer a first-hand account/inside view of a particular event
  • Include materials created by participants or witnesses of the event(s) under study
  • Include original records created at the time the events occurred
  • Provide raw data for historians

They can include:

  • Diaries
  • Manuscripts
  • Speeches
  • Autobiographies & memoirs
  • Letters
  • Interviews
  • News footage
  • Wills & contracts
Creative Works
  • Artwork
  • Music
  • Literature
  • Furniture
  • Jewelry
  • Buildings
  • Pottery
  • Items of everyday use

Secondary sources are:

  • Works that contain explanations/discussions of past events
  • Works that explain or interpret primary sources
  • Works that discuss a subject, but which are written after the time that the event/s occurred (by someone other than an eyewitness)

They can include:

  • Books
  • Articles
  • Criticisms
  • Commentaries
  • Encyclopedias


Adapted from Princeton University Library