Secondary Sources Are Not "Second"! PDF Print E-mail

Secondary sources"Joining the conversation" is an important part of doing history.
Secondary sources are books, documentaries, and magazine, newspaper, or professional journal articles written by historians and other writers who analyzed primary sources, studied others' arguments, and then formed their own understanding and conclusions of a historical question. Secondary sources are crucial to a History Fair project and should be given the most attention in the first phase of research and reading. All historians spend time with secondary sources; they see their own work as "joining the conversation"-building on other's ideas and offering new ways to understand a topic. History Fair encourages students to develop their own original ideas-but students can only do so if they know what's been written already.

Focus on secondary sources to:

  • Gain specific information about a topic.
  • Learn the context of previous actions/ideas that "set the stage" and what social, economic, political situations existed at the time.
  • Frame a particular story in the bigger picture.
  • Consider interpretations by different historians on a similar topic.
  • Use the bibliography to locate other important secondary sources.
  • Find out where primary sources on the topic are located (especially helpful for finding articles in pre-indexed newspapers).
  • Provide reproductions of primary sources that are relevant to a students project.
  • Model the structure of a historical argument based on claims and evidence.

Not all secondary sources are of equal value.
The most important secondary sources tend to be those that offer an interpretation based on primary sources. Some works are syntheses or compilations of secondary sources themselves, therefore they are another step removed from the actual sources. While these surveys are helpful, particularly in the first stages of research when a student is gathering basic information, students are encouraged to concentrate on secondary sources that are based on original work with primary sources. They tend to be written by scholars and published by university presses and journals


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