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ENGD89 - Topics in the Victorian Period

Definitions & Differences

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are:

  • first-hand accounts of events
  • works of fiction and poetry from a period being studied
  • materials created by participants or witnesses of the event/s under study
  • original records created at the time that events occurred
  • raw data

Secondary sources are:

  • works that discuss a subject, but which are written after the time that the event/s occurred (by someone other than an eyewitness)
  • works that contain explanations/interpretations/analysis/judgments/discussions of past events

Adapted from Memorial University Libraries

Differentiating between Primary and Secondary Sources

 

A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you've chosen to study, or by people who were observers of, or participants in that event or topic.

The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, statistics, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a primary source is when it was made, not what it is.

Books written by scholars about a topic are secondary sources. Historians' introductions to and editorial comments on collections of primary documents are also secondary sources because they're twice removed from the actual event or process you're going to be writing about. So while a historian's introduction to Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) is a secondary source, the novel itself, written in 1906, is a primary source.

Adapted from "Writing about History" by Elspeth Brown

Databases for Searching Victorian Sources