Primary and secondary sources explained

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© History Skills

Historical sources are central to your study of the past and are important to your success in History assessment pieces.


Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you learn what they are and in what forms they come.

What is a historical 'source'?

A source is something that provides information about the historical topic you are studying.


They can either be written (e.g., books or websites), or non-written (e.g., photographs or artefacts).


No matter what you're doing in History, you will use sources.


This could be simply learning information from a textbook or website, or actually looking at ancient artefacts made in the past.


Either way, they provide information about the past and are considered 'sources of information'.

The two kinds of sources

There are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary. 


The main difference between a primary and a secondary source is when they were made.


In order to determine whether a particular source is a primary or secondary source, you need to discover its time of creation.

Primary sources

Primary sources were made during the historical period 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 sources:

Types of Primary Sources Examples 
 Published documents books, magazines, newspapers, government documents, reports, advertisements, maps, posters, legal documents, and other kinds of literature
Unpublished documents personal letters, diaries, wills, deeds, and school report cards
Visual documents photographs, posters, cartoons, films, and paintings
Relics or Artefacts pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings and other excavated physical items

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:

Watch on YouTube

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources were made after the time period you are investigating.  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

Types of Secondary Sources Examples 
Books popular history books, textbooks, academic works, and printed theses
Academic Journal articles scholarly research undertaken by university academics is published in academic journals, which can be found via JSTOR or Google Scholar.
Websites 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.).

For example

Demonstrating source kind and type in your writing:


An ancient Greek sword is a primary source because it was made at the time of the event. 


A modern website is considered to be a secondary source since it was made after the time of the events it describes.


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.).

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