Working with Sources

What are primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence relating to a topic under examination. They are produced by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events being documented. Primary sources usually are created at the time when the events are occurring, but can also include histories recorded later (autobiographies, memoirs, or oral histories). They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information. Original accounts, published original works, or published original research are all primary source materials. Can you think of some examples of primary sources? Click here to find out....

Secondary sources are written versions of history that express an opinion or an argument about a past event based upon the evidence from primary sources. They are usually interpretations and evaluations of primary sources and are often written after the fact. Secondary sources are not evidence; instead they are accounts, works, or research that present comments on and discuss evidence. Can you think of some examples of secondary sources? Click here to find out...

Questioning the Source Identifying the differences between primary and secondary sources is the first step to a better understanding of the past. When you are examining a primary source it is always important to ask questions about the material so that you can get a better understanding of what it is conveying. Using the five key questions will help you gain insight into the source you are examining; Who, What, Where, When, and Why? What are some questions that you might ask about a primary source? Hint – Start with the basics!

  1. What is the primary source?
  2. Who produced the source?
  3. When and how was the source created?
  4. Where was the source created?
  5. Why was the source created?

Once you start the process of questioning quite often you will find that a simple question will lead into a chain of questions.

TRY THIS Read the transcribed portion of Simon Fraser’s Journal (transcript) and see if you can start a chain of questions. Why do you think this is a valuable primary source? Why do you think that it is important to question this source? Go to Simon Fraser’s Journal original pages