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HIST 4399: (Menninger) Europe Between the Wars 1918-1939: Primary v. Secondary Sources

Primary v. Secondary Sources

Primary sources, for historical purposes, are most often defined as eye-witness accounts of events/historical periods. Those accounts written or created at the time, not with 20/20 hindsight.

These sources reflect the point of view of a participant or observer at a particular point of time. There are a wide range of source materials available for historical research. For example:

    • Magazines, newspapers, books, and pamphlets written and published during a particular time period
    • Diaries, letters, or papers usually written for personal reasons. Some of these may have been published later, usually after the writer’s death.
    • Reports and records such as census data or other government documents. 
    • Autobiographies and memoirs often written long after the events took place and therefore, may be somewhat less reliable.
    • Photos, audio recordings, movies, buildings, and other physical objects may also reveal information about the time period and popular culture

Compilations of primary sources such as a book containing many short excerpts from primary sources may not always be as useful as the original sources themselves.

Source materials may have a bias or purpose which you should be aware of. For example, an article from a northern paper during the civil war will read much differently than an article from a southern paper. When reading primary sources, think about why the piece was written, when it was written, and what it tells us about the writer and the time period.

The Alkek library has many databases that include primary source documents. Those are listed here


Secondary sources are those written after the fact, by someone who was not a party to the original events. 

Scholars usually use primary sources in their research when writing secondary accounts or inturpretations of historical events.  It pays to check the bibliographies of secondary sources for information about the primary sources on the topic! 


Primary Sources- A Quick Explanation

Tips for finding primary sources

Perform a KEYWORD search in the Alkek library  online catalog to find books or other materials on your topic

  • Add one of the following primary source terms to your search: Correspondence, Description and Travel, Diaries, Interviews, Personal Narratives, Sources, or Speeches

** Example: United States Foreign Relations sources

Librarian-College of Liberal Arts

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Margaret Vaverek