Primary and secondary sources

The information that you find online can be primary (direct or firsthand) or secondary (reported, interpreted or analysed).

Primary sources

Primary resources are the original sources of information. They can include unofficial records, such as diaries and interviews; published manuscripts, including autobiographies and memoirs; official government records of births, deaths and marriages; or commercial artefacts such as phone books.

Primary sources report data and record events. They can be rich in detail, but are not always correct. Perhaps the person writing down the the death record spelled your ancestor's name incorrectly or didn't have access to all the necessary information.

Primary sources can include people's interpretations or personal views, such as their thoughts written in a letter, and may be rich in descriptions as well as data.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources comment on, interpret or build upon primary documents. They may include accounts or interpretations of events created by someone who didn't witness them. Secondary sources use and interpret both primary and secondary documents to tell the stories of events or people.

A diary written by a soldier during a battle is a primary source. A historian's book on that battle, written years later, is a secondary source – it might quote the soldier's diary, but may also interpret what happened in the light of other soldiers' letters and diaries, maps and photographs, archaeological evidence, other historians' research and simply knowing the battle's final outcome.

Both primary and secondary resources are tremendously valuable, but any account can be biased.

Things to remember
  • Primary sources are direct or firsthand
  • Secondary sources comment on and interpret primary documents

Now let's look at ways to check the reliability of information.


Last modified: Thursday, 22 September 2016, 2:33 PM