Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source is a resource generated by a participant in or an observer of an historical event. Primary sources include speeches, letters, diaries, and newspaper stories. Memoirs and autobiographies written well after the event also are considered to be primary sources. Primary sources are not limited to written records; images and material objects also serve as primary sources. For example, American Indian rock art, African American quilts, Depression-era photographs, and even buildings have assisted historians in their efforts to reconstruct the past.
A secondary source is a resource produced by an individual who did not participate in the incident. For example, an historian who writes a book about the American Revolution has produced a secondary source. Secondary sources are typically written documents. However, note that in our course the lectures serve as a secondary source. Textbooks and television documentaries are secondary sources with which many history students are familiar.
In their efforts to understand the past, historians rely upon a mixture of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources provide specific details about an event and offer insights into how people alive at the time of the event perceived its meaning and importance. Secondary sources provide historians context, or an intellectual framework, that helps them to interpret the primary sources. For example, the article that you will read for this assignment is a primary source. It will make a great deal more sense after you have studied a secondary source, the classroom lectures on the New South.