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Primary Sources: About Primary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources

The term "Primary Source" refers to sources that are immediate, first-hand accounts of, or items related to, a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it    The term "Secondary Source" refers to sources that are at least one step removed from the topic. They may add interpretation and summarize primary sources. Primary Sources: Letters, diaries, and other personal accounts Interviews, memoirs, and speeches Laws and legal records Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event Original research Datasets News reports by someone present at an event Ephemera and memorabilia like event posters, ticket stubs, programs. Secondary Sources: Most books on a given topic Analysis or interpretation of data Documentaries and biographies Textbooks News reports that use someone else's account of an event

Primary Sources, Bias, and Accuracy

Primary Sources Are......an incomplete picture...not necessarily factually accurate...not necessarily free of bias...dependent on the research context

Primary Sources Are...an incomplete picture: Who creates records of events?  Who decides what records are preserved and what sources are made accessible to the public?  In the middle ages, an illiterate person could not easily send a letter or keep a diary During times of war or genocide, one side destroys the records and cultural artifacts of the other In oppressive social structures, the dominant group has the most funding and resources to preserve documents for posterity  When you use primary sources, keep in mind: Whose stories aren't being accounted for? Why are those stories missing? Can they be found in another primary source? What can you infer from brief mentions or absenses of information?

Primary Sources Are... not necessarily accurate           not necessarily unbiased In a letter, someone writes their side of the story. In a trial record, the court works based on unstated assumptions about race and gender. An organization releases a statement "spinning" a story to make them look better.Just because a source is primary to an event doesn't mean its facts are right--and it definitely doesn't mean it's unbiased  BUT! Just because there are inaccuracies or bias doesn't mean the source isn't useful! Those biases are part of history and part of the event. Ask yourself: Can other sources corroborate this information with other primary sources? What was the motive for creating this source? Who was the audience? What biases were common when this source was created? Have scholarly secondary sources analyzed this event?

Primary Sources Are...dependent on your research context A scholar is researching how schools taught the Civil War in the 1950s.  Among their primary sources are textbooks used in schools at that time  In the example above, something that is usually a secondary source (a textbook) is primary, because the textbook is provides first-hand evidence for the scholar's particular research (1950s education).  The textbook is still secondary to its own topic (the Civil War).  When you are researching, consider what materials are primary to your topic, not just what is usually considered primary. What will provide the most first-hand evidence? What perspectives should you try to include? What kinds of resources are relevant?

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