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What are Primary Sources?

What are Primary Sources and why are they important is a question that anyone who consumes news media should know and understand. As media takes a more prominent role in our everyday lives knowing the importance of Primary Source data is paramount in discovering whether a written article or media is factual.

PRIMARY SOURCE DEFINITION

Primary sources are produced during the time of an event, although they can be written after the fact, in the form of memoirs. They often demonstrate personal experiences that encompass a historical event, movement or era. Primary sources are often written by contemporary players of the era that is being researched. Most experiences are first-hand accounts but are seen through the lens of the individual or institution.

Primary sources are regarded as trusted, where secondary sources are dependent on knowing whether the author is a trustworthy and respected researcher[1]. When considering whether a piece is a primary source, consider whether the document reveals direct knowledge of the topic you are researching[2]? Using Primary Sources prevents passing on mistakes from author to author [3]. The quality of information gleaned from primary sources is more reliable than secondary sources[4], although it’s not a perfect source and bias can play a role in its accuracy[5].

What do primary sources reveal?

Primary sources are often used to understand the discourse that people were actively engaged in during a historic event or period.  They provide valuable information regarding movements and aid in exploring the past. They can reveal private or intimate information regarding events that may not otherwise be uncovered by historians. Primary sources reveal the context of an event and expose how society and governments dealt with the aftermath of events and may disclose buried information that lead to a movement[6].

Asking who, what, where, when and why, is often recommended when analyzing whether or not you are reading a primary source[7]. For further information regarding history and myths of primary sources read “Teaching History: Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” by Keith Barton[8].

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Source

  • Written documents
  • Folktales and Oral histories
  • Sound, image, video, maps
  • Manuscripts
  • Coins and currency
  • Government Documents
  • Diaries, letters and *memoirs
  • Most often located in an archive
  • Artifacts
  • Advertisements

Secondary Source

  • Analytical
  • Written after the event
  • Textbooks
  • Art and Music
  • Biographies *
  • The Best Kind: are peer-reviewed papers, journals and books

*Unlike a memoir, a bio is not written by the person who experienced the event[10])

W5: Discover whether you are reading a primary source

Who wrote or created the source? Is there provenance leading to the piece?
What is it, letter, photographs or a book?
Where was the piece created? Does it make sense in the context of the event?
When was it created? Does it fit in the era of your research?
Why was it created? Does it convey emotion?


“History: Primary Sources: Primary and Secondary Sources”

Video by Madison Technical College in Wisconsin.


Bibliography

Baade, Christina, “How do we study media history?”, January 24, 2018, Power Point, Week 1,     CMST3HC3: The History of Communications, McMaster University.

Barton, Keith, “Teaching History: Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the

Myths”, Phi Delta Kappan, June 2005, p. 745, Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/apps/doc/A132948565/AONE?u=ocul_mcmaster&sid=AONE&xid=98da1609, Accessed Sept. 27, 2018.

Department of History Writing Centre, “Primary Sources”, February 2016, The University of       British Columbia, Vancouver campus,

http://www.history.ubc.ca/content/primary-sources, Accessed Sept. 26.

Library and Archives Canada,“Toolkit: Defining Primary and Secondary  Sources”,  March 30,  2004, Government of Canada Collections Canada,          https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/008-3010-e.html, Accessed Sept. 26.

Madison Area Technical College Libraries Research, Guide to Finding Primary Sources for your history research, “History: Primary Sources: Primary and Secondary Sources”,      September 3, 2018, Madison Area Technical College,          https://libguides.madisoncollege.edu/primary?wvideo=3d6r55g00z, Accessed Sept. 26.


Footnotes

[1] Department of History Writing Centre, “Primary Sources”, February 2016, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver campus, http://www.history.ubc.ca/content/primary-sources, Accessed Sept. 26.

[2] Library and Archives Canada,“Toolkit: Defining Primary and Secondary Sources”,  March 30, 2004, Government of Canada Collections Canada, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/008-3010-e.html, Accessed Sept. 26.

[3] Department of History Writing Centre, “Primary Sources”, February 2016, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver campus, http://www.history.ubc.ca/content/primary-sources, Accessed Sept. 26.

[4] Why do we differentiate between primary and secondary sources? Human minds do not retain memories of events for long. This frailty of the human mind makes it impossible to write about an event even if there is little, time that has passed by.  For this reason, even with the best research with the deepest exploration based on secondary sources cannot be a substitute for primary sources. Primary sources are also said to engage the learner with authentic documents and enhance learning. Although this is not a perfect system and biases must be considered. Department of History Writing Centre, “Primary Sources”,

[5] Not a perfect system? Using primary sources is not a perfect system, as even things that are considered primary sources are tinted by biases. Just because something is from the past, does not make it true. Sources from the past may also exhibit a narrow focus due to the individual (3). Barton, Keith, “Teaching History: Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths”, Phi Delta Kappan, June 2005, p. 745, Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/apps/doc/A132948565/AONE?u=ocul_mcmaster&sid=AONE&xid=98da1609

Library and Archives Canada,“Toolkit: Defining Primary and Secondary Sources”.

[8] Barton, Keith, “Teaching History: Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths”.

[9] Baade, Christina, “How do we study media history?”, January 24, 2018, Power Point, Week 1, CMST3HC3: The History of Communications, McMaster University.

[10] Department of History Writing Centre, “Primary Sources”

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