Skip to main content OPRFHS Library Home Page

Stephen - Research Paper: Primary & Secondary Sources and Historiography

Primary and Secondary Sources

Questions about Primary and Secondary Sources

 What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides us with evidence about the past. (Also called a direct source.)

Documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, and interviews. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, or original literary or theatrical works.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is a book, article, film, or museum that displays primary sources selectively in order to interpret the past. (Also called a secondhand source.)

These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio, television, or movie documentaries, or museum exhibits.

Are textbooks always secondary sources?

In most cases they are; however, not always. Consider the following research question: How was the Soviet Union portrayed in high school textbooks during the 1950s? In this example, textbooks from the 1950s would be a primary source because the textbook is a document from the time.

Finding Primary Sources

Try a Google Search that includes the terms "primary source" along with your topic keywords. Here's an example.

Finding Books for Your Historigraphy

Start with a general article or articles on your topic from U.S History in Context database (from home use "oak30216").


  • Annotate the article(s) and look at the "Further Readings" at the end of the article(s). The authors have written the important books on your topic.  (You will enter these authors' names and the titles of their books in your future JSTOR searches to find reviews of the books.)
  • Using the advanced search feature in above database, enter your broad topic in the top line and then type "History in Dispute" in the publication box. There are many research questions in this source. You may want to look for one that interests you if you are uncomfortable with your topic. (History in Dispute)
  • Carefully go over the "Further Readings" or bibliography sections of the articles. Decide who the major scholars are in the field. Highlight these authors and titles. Look at the publication dates of the books. Try to find books from different time periods.

Now you are ready to find the reviews on JSTOR (from home use "oprfhs" and "huskies").

  • Using the "Advanced Search" feature on JSTOR, enter the highlighted authors and titles, and remember to check the "Reviews" box under "Narrow By".

  • This search should return results that are reviews of the books. Look for the longest review; it may provide a literature review or historiography of the topic (up to the time the book under review was published).
  • Your annotation will be a summary of what this review says about the author and the book as it relates to your topic.