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*History Research Guide*: Primary/Secondary Sources

Definition of archives

ar·chive      pronounced: ˈärˌkīv/     noun  plural noun: archives

  • A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.
    • synonyms:   records, annals, chronicles, accounts, papers, documents, files, history, muniments
  • The place where historical documents or records are kept. 
    • synonyms: record office, registry, repository, depository, museum, chancery


Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Taken from YouTube, user tatirama.

Click on the catalog link and examine the Library of Congress (LC) subject headings

Subject Headings for Primary Sources

Here are possible Library of Congress (LC) subject headings to use when researching. Try pairing one of these with your main topic or subject.  EXAMPLE:

church records and registers



early works to 1800


oral histories



personal narratives  SEE example above

probate records




Primary vs. Secondary Sources and Content

PRIMARY Sources:

  • First-hand accounts by people who experienced event.
  • A person's account of own feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that comes directly from person, place, or event being researched.


  • Second-hand accounts by people who did not experience event.
  • One person's account of someone else's feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that originates much later than person, place, or event being researched.
  • Contains INTERPRETATIONS, analysis, synthesis.

Content Versus Format:

Is a newspaper always primary, and is a book always secondary? NO. "Primary" and "secondary" relate to the CONTENT, not the format.

Primary sources OFTEN appear in document types such as letters and newspapers, but a source doesn't have to be primary just because of its format. The same is true of sources on paper versus sources on the Internet, and sources which are duplicated as they appear (by scanning or photographing) versus sources which are transcribed (retyped word for word in plain text) -- it's the content that counts.

It's All About CONTEXT:

There is nothing inherent in a document or object that automatically makes it always be "primary" or "secondary." YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION determines whether the source is primary or secondary for YOUR research. The same document could be a primary source for one paper and a secondary source for another paper.

Example: 1975 biography about Abraham Lincoln would probably be a...

-- Secondary source if you are studying Lincoln’s life.

-- Primary source if you are studying how people wrote historical biographies in the 1970s.

Library of Congress: Primary Sources

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The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

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Today's Document from the National Archives

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Analyzing Primary Sources of All Types


Minnesota HIstorical Society Primary vs. Secondary Sources