Primary and Secondary Resources

Building Historical Contect and Conducting Research

I have my topic and I have connected it to the NHD® theme.  What do I do next?  

To understand the connections between your topic and the time period, begin reading about the time period. As  you read, ask yourself questions:  why did my topic happen at this particular time and in this particular place?  What were the events or the influences that came before my topic?  How was my topic influenced by and how did it influence the economic, social, political, and cultural climate of the time period?  All of these questions will help you to build the story of your topic and grasp the historical significance.

While you are researching a topic for a NHD® project, you will read different types of sources:  primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

A primary source is a piece of information about a historical event or period in which the creator of the source was an actual participant in or a contemporary of a historical moment.  The purpose of primary sources is to capture the words, the thoughts and the intentions of the past.  Primary sources help you to interpret what happened and why it happened.

Examples of primary sources include documents, artifacts, historic sites, songs, or other written and tangible items created during the historical period you are studying.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a source that was not created first-hand by someone who participated in the historical era.  Secondary sources are usually created by historians, but based on the historian’s reading of primary sources.  Secondary sources are usually written decades, if not centuries after the event occurred by people who did not live through or participate in the even or issue.  The purpose of a secondary source is to help build the story of your research from multiple perspectives to give your research historical context.

An example of a secondary source is Battle Cry of Freedom:  The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson, published in 1988.  They are a great starting point in helping you see the big picture.  Understanding the context of your topic will help you make sense of the primary sources that you find.

The primary and secondary sources McPherson used are listed in the bibliography.  Another researcher might consult these sample primary sources and reach a different conclusion.

For more information about citations and how to construct you annotated bibliography click here.