Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
December 2006


Primary Sources in History


What is a primary source?

In history, a primary source is anything that comes from the period or event under study that will help shed some light, some understanding, onto it. Such a source was created by a person living at the time. These sources are often called "original records" by historians. They make up a great part of the material used by historians to recreate and interpret the past. Much of the primary sources is written and contained in public or private archives. However, a number of documents have been published in book form or have been uploaded to the web.

Examples of primary sources are:

Letters Birth/Death certificates
Laws Speeches
Diaries Memoirs
Newspaper articles Pamphlets
Records of meetings Monuments
Paintings or drawings Government documents
Photographs Films/videos or audio recordings
Maps Books (from the time)
Tools Clothing
Architecture Oral history or interviews
Census records Deeds and other documents related to land

Historians have developed techniques to analyse properly primary documents.


What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are the work of people writing after the events or the period under study. Essentially, in history, secondary sources are the works of historians. They have examined the primary sources, digested them, and offer an analysis, a chronology, and judgment about the events. While this work should be done in an objective fashion, the work of historians is essentially interprative. They have filtered the primary documents and the reader only know about the event what the historian discloses.

In doing historical research, it is not only essential to examine the primary documentation available but, as well, the writing of historians to determine what is the current perspective, or outlook, on an issue, what is well established, what questions remain, what new perspective might be brought to bear.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College