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What are Historical Sources?
Historical sources are, essentially, anything to do with the past. They may be any of the following, and this is not a complete list by any means.

  • Letters - personal
  • Letters - public
  • Published books for
    general reading
  • Published textbooks for
  • Historical commentary
  • Newspapers
  • Poetry
  • Memoirs
  • Government Reports
  • Other Official Documents
  • Tables
  • Charts
  • Maps
  • Paintings
  • Posters
  • Cartoons
  • Photographs
  • Hollywood style Films
  • Documentaries
  • Maps
  • Drawings
  • Diagrams
  • Pots
  • Burial sites
  • Sculpture
  • Buildings
  • Statues
  • Memorials
  • Gardens
  • Shipwrecks
  • Clothing
  • Furniture

Primary and Secondary?

The usually accepted, but simplistic, definition of these two terms is that:

A Primary Source comes from the time that the historian (you) is investigating.
A Secondary Source is one which is based on other sources.

- A diary for its writer
- A letter for its writer
- A painting for its painter
- A building for its builder
- A Hollywood style film for its directors, producers, actors
-A cartoon for its drawer
- A history book which is written about something from the past eg the authors’ writing in your textbooks
- You talk or write about a Hollywood film you have not seen but have been told about by friends
- A composite photo which has been made up of a combination of parts of an original photo but is made to look like an original

The difficulty lies in the fact that all sources are only primary or secondary depending on what the historian is investigating. For example, a newspaper and its contents is both primary and secondary.

Let us consider a newspaper published in 1914.

It is Primary if, amongst other ideas,
• the historian is investigating newspapers of 1914.
• the historian is investigating the views expressed by editors of newspapers in 1914.
• the historian is investigating what sort of articles were published in newspapers in 1914.


When you are asked to "use" an historical source in a textbook, test, exam or homework, the teacher expects you to quote from the source and the question is usually phrased something like "Use Source ? and your own knowledge to answer the following question.

What you are being asked to do is supply some information on the topic being studied and include in your answer quotes from the source. The quotes may be in the form of a direct quote, eg. Source ? clearly states that "... ... ... ... ..." or it may be describing something from a picture, eg. ... it can be clearly seen in Source ? that the object next to the person is ... ... or it may be supporting something you have written, eg. Source ? supports the view that ...

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