Kinds and Types of Sources

Bayeux Tapestry. (c. AD 1080). Bayeux: Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
Bayeux Tapestry. (c. AD 1080). Bayeux: Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. Source: theguardian.com

 Sources, their use in forming arguments, and their analysis, are central to history subjects. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you learn what they are and in what forms they come.

 

A source is something that survives from the past or something that describes the past.  There are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary. 


Primary Sources


Primary sources come from the time that is being investigated.  These are often the hardest to find but, as a result, are often the strongest evidence you can use in your assessment pieces.

 

There are many different types of primary evidence:

  1. Published Documents: this includes books, magazines, newspapers, government documents, reports, advertisements, maps, posters, legal documents, and other kinds of literature. When reviewing published documents, remember that just because something was published does not make it accurate or reliable.
  2. Unpublished Documents: These are personal documents that were never intended for wide circulation. Examples include personal letters, diaries, wills, deeds, school report cards, and similar things. Unlike published documents, unpublished records may be difficult to find because few copies exist. In some cases, unpublished documents can be collected and eventually published, but keep in mind that they were not originally intend for public knowledge.
  3. Visual Documents: These include photographs, films, paintings, and other types of artwork. Visual documents capture moments in time and can provide evidence about a culture at specific moments in history: its customs, styles, special occasions, work, and play. Like other primary source documents, a visual document has a creator with a perspective - such as a painter, sculptor, or filmmaker. Using visual documents as primary sources requires careful interpretation what the message is.
  4. Relics or Artefacts: This includes pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings and other excavated physical items. Archaeological material provides evidence that either corroborates with or contradicts literary sources.

Secondary Sources


Secondary sources are made after the time being investigated by the historian.  As you progress as a History student, you will start to find that some secondary sources are better than others. As a general rule, value secondary sources that are created by scholars, as they are usually more reliable.


However, whilst modern scholars aim to produce reliable and unbiased historical accounts, read their writings with the same critical eye as you would primary source creators.

 

Like primary sources, secondary sources come in different types:  

  1. Books: Books, like school textbooks, often have large amounts of evidence about a particular historical period, author, theme or region. Not only are these useful for expanding your historical knowledge and background research, but they can also provide you with some good primary sources.
  2.  Academic Journal Articles: Scholarly research undertaken by university academics is published in academic journals. Journal articles are often the result of many years of research by specialists in particular areas of History. As a result, they contain a lot of information and usually draw heavily on primary sources. However, journals are written for an academic audience, so the language can be very difficult to read at first. Also, be aware that different academics and universities can have their own idiosyncratic perspective, which may result in a bias in their articles. You can find secondary sources on websites such as JSTOR or Google Scholar.
  3. Websites: Internet sites vary widely in accuracy, reliability and relevance. Most websites that come up on a Google search are not of sufficient quality for high school or university essays. If you choose to use websites as secondary sources, make sure you only use websites from respectable individuals or institutions (universities, museums, government archives, etc.).

Demonstrating source kind and type in your writing:

 

The Gallic Wars is a firsthand, written account of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Gaul.

  

In a series of letters written in 1914 to the Russian Tsar, German Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote that “the responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilised world will not lie at my door” (1914, n.p.).