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What is a Secondary Source?

Imagining the World as it Once Was

People in the past lived differently. They wore different clothes than we do today, they called dinner "supper" and lunch "dinner," they watched different television shows--or they watched no television at all. They understood race differently than we do, and they thought about the differences between men and women in ways we might have trouble recognizing today.

Often, it's difficult to get into the heads of people in the past and understand why those people created certain materials and what those sources might have meant to their them, and those around them. This is the job of the historian--to imagine the world as people in the past imagined it and to figure out how their thoughts fit into the world today.

How Secondary Sources Help

When looking at a primary source, historians almost always have to learn more about the time period in which the primary source was created: what was going on politically, economically, socially, and culturally at the time. To do this, historians often rely on each other's work. For example, a historian who is analyzing the impact Elvis Presley had on youth culture of the 1950s might first want to read up on the general history of popular music during the middle of the twentieth century, on youth culture of the time, and on Elvis Presley's life. Knowing that Elvis was heavily influence by African American blues and Christian gospel music might change the way the historian understands the lyrics of Elvis's popular song "All Shook Up."

When a historian looks at a source that was written by the people in the past whom he or she is studying, that is a primary source. So, the songs and letters written and sung by Elvis would be primary sources. When a historian looks at sources that were written about the people whom he or she is analyzing, these are called secondary sources.

In your day-to-day life, you probably come across secondary sources a lot. When your parents tell you about your grandparents' lives, they are acting as secondary sources. But, if you read a letter written from your grandmother to your grandfather, that would be a primary source. Other secondary sources include your history teacher, your history textbook, and two sections of this website: The Library and The Museum. Can you think of other secondary sources you come across in your life?

When historians choose secondary sources, they try to be very careful about choosing reliable secondary sources. They look for books and articles that tell readers exactly what primary sources the book or article relied on to make its argument. They also look for books and articles that were carefully reviewed and edited by other historians before being published. What criteria do you use to determine if a secondary source is reliable?

ACTIVITY: Using Secondary Sources to Analyze Primary Sources

Use the primary source that you selected and described in Activity 1. Login to your Be a Historian account and continue to takes notes there.

Choose Relevant Secondary Sources

Secondary sources can often provide useful background information that will help you understand the circumstances surrounding the creation of your primary source. Remember, it is often helpful to know what was going on politically, economically, socially, and culturally.

  1. What information do you still need to help answer your historical question?
  2. What ideas, images, or terms from the source still need to be defined?
  3. Which of the articles in The Library area might help you understand your primary source better?
    (You may choose more than one.)
  4. For each article you selected: how does the article relate to your primary source?
  5. Which of the exhibits in The Museum area might help you understand your primary source better?
    (You may choose more than one.)
  6. For each exhibit you selected: how does the exhibit relate to your primary source?

Get Into the Head of the Source Creator and Audience

Now that you know more about the general time period surrounding your primary source’s creation, you want to consider how the time period may have influence the document creator's intentions, style, and technique. It would have also influenced how the audience read the document. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your document's creator and audience when you answer these questions.

  1. How was the creator of your primary source different from you?
  2. What opinions or interests were they expressing in this document?
  3. Is the creator making an argument? Is it hidden or obvious? What is the argument?
  4. Is the document's creator leaving anything out? Was this on purpose? Was it unconscious? What do these omissions say about the creator?
  5. What do you imagine the reaction of the document readers/viewers to be? Who might have disagreed with the creator's opinions?

Connect Back to Your Question

Don't forget to connect all this new information back to your central historical question.

  1. Now that you understand your primary source better, does it still help you answer your historical question?
  2. What questions are you still left with about your primary source? What resources might help you answer these questions? Other primary sources? Other secondary sources?

Need more secondary source?

If you can't find all the secondary sources you need on this website to understand your primary source, you may want to try researching at your school or public library. Or, try your hand at conducting reliable internet research.

Be careful, because this can be much trickier than it seems. Let's say you are looking for more information about African American poverty in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Simply searching the web for the answer and clicking on the first websites that come up would be like standing on the sidewalk and asking the first people that pass you to tell you about African American poverty in North Carolina during the Great Depression. You know nothing about those people, where they get their information, or whether they are trustworthy or biased. The same goes for the internet.

When using internet secondary sources, look for these things:

  • The website should identify its creators, and you should feel that its creators are reputable people or organizations. Don't use a site simply because it is convenient
  • The website should identify where it is getting its information from. It should cite its own primary and secondary sources. If it makes a claim, it needs to back it up with evidence.

And remember! When you use an online source, you must cite it!