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Historical Methods: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

What makes a source primary?

Whether or not a source is primary or secondary depends upon the topic and the questions that you, as the researcher, are asking. 

For example: 

Shakespeare's Richard III (1593) would be considered a secondary source for the topic of Richard III's life (1452 -1485), since it is a later depiction of Richard. 

However, if the topic being researched was how Richard III was portrayed during Tudor England, then Richard III could be used as a primary source since it gives us a glimpse of popular portrayals of Richard during the time period being studied. 

Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

Primary Sources are materials that provide a first-hand account of an event, person, place, etc.

Primary Sources are most often created at the time of the event by a participant or witness, but can include memoirs or accounts recorded at a later date by someone directly connected to that moment in history. 

Primary Sources can give details about an event, person, or place AND can demonstrate how people viewed and described their world.

Types of Primary Sources:

Textual: Diaries, speeches, laws, personal papers, autobiographies, interview transcripts, original research, first person reports in newspapers and magazines.

Non-textual: Original artwork, cartoons, photographs, posters, films, postcards, baseball cards, objects (jewelry, weaponry, religious iconography), and video or audio that captures an event. 


Peter Gordon, “A View of Savannah as it stood the 29 March 1734,” Georgia Historical Society, accessed June 1, 2018,

Secondary Sources

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary Sources are removed from the topic or event in terms of time and/or space.

Secondary Sources often cite primary sources and offer an analysis or interpretation of the topic or event. 

Types of Secondary Sources:

Treatises (expert books on a topic), scholarly articles, textbooks, documentaries, biographies, essays, dissertations, film or art criticisms, etc.


Renaissance Quarterly 71 (2018).

Eamon Duffy, "A. G. Dickens and the late medieval Church," Historical Research 77, no. 195 (February 2004): 98-110, accessed August 20, 2018,

Reference and Instruction Librarian

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Kristen Bailey
Macon Library, Office 138
Subjects: History