Primary vs. Secondary Resources in Historical Research

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  • 0:01 Assembling a Paper or a Dish
  • 0:49 Secondary Sources
  • 1:55 Primary Sources
  • 2:42 Bad Sources
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Good history and good cooking can both be ruined by not using the proper ingredients. This lesson explains why that is true while describing the roles of primary and secondary sources.

Assembling a Paper or a Dish

Being a historian is quite similar to being a chef. Granted, a well-written paper is unlikely to ever earn a three-star review, but both are expected to take a variety of ingredients and turn it into something altogether more palatable. Just like chefs, historians have different groups of source ingredients that are expected to do different things in a dish and lend completely different tastes and textures to the final product. The main classes of sources for historians are primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are those sources written as first-hand accounts of an event, whereas secondary sources are those sources written by individuals who did not see the act in question.

Secondary Sources

When you are cooking, chances are that most of the time you only have one or two main ingredients. These ingredients provide the bulk of what you're actually consuming, whether it is chicken or pasta or tofu. In fact, much of the flavor hangs off the structure of these components.

This is a great analogy for how secondary sources should fit into a work. They provide the structure of a paper and set the overall tone that it hopes to achieve. Secondary sources, such as scholarly papers, lectures, encyclopedias, or books, help determine what a paper sets out to do. Writing a paper about the French Revolution? Then chances are you won't be using a secondary source on the Chinese Shang dynasty.

However, too many secondary sources can start to get in the way of each other. It's rare that you dump pasta, rice, chicken, steak, and tofu in the same dish. The flavors would just get lost with each other, and your palate would end up confused. The same applies to history. Too many secondary sources can drag a work down, making it boring. Luckily, there is a solution.

Primary Sources

Chances are when you cook a piece of chicken, you don't just put the raw meat into the microwave and hope for the best. Instead, you season it, using different seasonings that complement each other. You don't mix mint and shredded cheese, for example. However, each new ingredient brings something different, but somehow it all works together.

That is how primary sources work. Whereas secondary sources provide some base structure and understanding to a work, primary sources provide the real flavor to make it interesting. That paper on the French Revolution may be interesting enough as a glorified timeline, but think about adding a first-hand account of someone who saw the storming of the Bastille. Just like adding salt or paprika to the chicken, this can spice up your paper.

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