Primary and Secondary Sources

The sources that you might use for a history research paper can be divided into primary and secondary sources.  A primary sources is any item that has a direct connection to the topic you are studying.  Thus, if you are studying Abraham Lincoln, primary sources would include anything that Lincoln wrote or anything written about him by persons who knew him.  These written materials might have been published and thus available in libraries; if unpublished, the original manuscripts are housed in public and private archives and libraries (or in the personal collections of descendants or of manuscript collectors).  In addition to written documents, primary sources for various topics can include coins, clothing, buildings, battlefields, music, photographs, paintings, and so on.   

Secondary sources are those items not directly connected to the topic being studied.  A biography of Abraham Lincoln written by a history professor in 1995 would be a secondary source, for that historian had no direct connection to Abraham Lincoln.  In writing the book, however, the historian would have used many primary sources.

Ideally, a student writing a history research paper should use a combination of primary and secondary sources.  If you are studying Abraham Lincoln, you should  make your own analysis of the Gettysburg Address and his other writings while also using the insights of historians who have written about Lincoln. 

How many primary and secondary works should you consult?   There is no easy way to answer that question.  The proper amount will depend in part on the topic and on the length of your paper.  A ten-page paper written as part of a History course will involve less research than a much longer senior thesis or honors project.  Consult with your professor regarding the amount of research that will be expected for your assignment.


Locating Written Materials for Your Topic

Some topics (for example, on state or local history) might involve interviewing  people, visiting museums to look at artifacts, traveling to an archive to read an unpublished manuscript, or walking over the grounds of a cemetery or a battlefield.  Most often, however, a student working on a paper during a semester will be using written materials found in a library or on the Internet.  The discussion below therefore concentrates on the kind of work that a typical undergraduate student might need to perform.

Once you have selected a topic for a research paper, how do you begin to find books and articles?  This can be a daunting prospect at the very beginning of a project, when you don’t know the name of any author or the title of any book or article on the topic.  Here is a brief outline of some of the more common ways of accumulating a list of materials.  Students should be aware that their research is not limited to books and articles located in Friedsam Memorial Library.  If you find a reference to something not available in our library, you can order it from interlibrary loan via email: Interlibrary Loan 



Harvard University.

Library of Congress.

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