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History 301 -- Krivulskaya

Methods and resources for history research.

What is a secondary source?

Secondary source material serves several purposes for the historian. These sources provide: 

  1. background overviews of a topic
  2. scholarly interpretations of primary source evidence
  3. citations to primary source materials
  4. bibliographies leading to other secondary sources

Ask yourself if what you have is biased in any way. How old is the publication? Has new evidence or historiographic methods appeared since the publication of the item at hand? What question does the text ask and is it answered? What questions remain?

This means you are going to deep dive into books and scholarly journals. Expect to find differing viewpoints and interpretations and be sure to bring these into your own work. Not that you necessarily agree with the arguments you find but you need to acknowledge the disagreements and provide evidence to support your interpretation. This is entering the scholarly discussion and part of being a historian.  

In the case of books, it might be helpful to look at book reviews written by history scholars (not the promotional blurbs so popular with publishers.) scholarly book reviews will point out strengths and weaknesses in the research methodology and resources. This can be very helpful as you become acquainted with key contributors, current arguments, and sources on your historical topic. 

Example of primary and secondary source

Searches including the term 'primary' will usually return an unsatisfactory result set. This is because it is actually difficult to label an item as primary--what a primary document is varies with the need of the researcher and the situation in which the item was created.

This example uses articles published about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins" from The San Francisco Call Chronicle Examiner, April 19, 1906 is from the time of the event and would be primary source material for historical research on this event and its aftermath. San Francisco 1906

"Frisco Quake Remembered" from The Birmingham Post and dated April 19, 2006 is secondary if you are researching the 1906 quake. BUT it could be considered primary if you are researching the perception of this event after a period of time (how has memory affected history?), rather than the event itself.

Special Collections & History Librarian

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Judith Downie
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