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Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources


There are a number of questions that a researcher must consider when analyzing primary or secondary sources.

  • What type of source is this - primary or secondary?
  • What are the qualifications of the person(s) who created the source?
  • Why did the person(s) create the document?
  • What is the historical context (time, place, and situation) within which it was created?
  • What is the main idea expressed in the source? What are the key facts that support this idea?
  • Is there a bias or one-sided point of view in the source? What are some key words or phrases that reveal the point of view or bias?
  • What sources did the authors use?
  • What evidence does this source contribute to my research?

When you are studying a primary source, keeping these questions in mind will help you to find the answers to your research questions. Another important point to consider is whether or not you feel the information is accurate and authentic. Do you believe that the author described the events accurately? How do you know if the information given is true? Different people can retell the same story in different ways. The details included and not included in a piece of writing have a great impact on how the document is received by those who read it. Similarly, the research you do, and what you choose to include and not include, can influence how someone sees that history.

The chart below outlines the main characteristics of primary and secondary sources:

Primary Source Secondary Source
First-hand evidence or eyewitness account of an event, circumstance, or personality. Second-hand account of an event, circumstance, or personality made after the time period being recorded.
Tells about the event without adding any interpretation or commentary that may convey attitudes form a later time. Interprets, analyzes, or explains a historical event and the evidence of that event.
Reflects the individual viewpoint or bias (a one-sided point of view) of the participant/recorder. Usually attempts to be objective and balanced, but may reflect the biases of the historian/recorder.
Reflects the biases and attitudes of the time period in which it was witten or produced. Could convey the attitudes of the time period in which it was written or produced.

For more information, check the Library and Archives Canada web page on Defining Primary and Secondary Sources.

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