What is a Primary Source?

Due to the emphasis on basing historical research on primary documents, students are now faced with the issues of not only locating primary sources but also with telling the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.

The Kansas standards for social science defines a primary source in a fairly strict manner:

“Primary source – a first-hand account of an event, person or place (official document, diary, letter, historical photograph, oral testimony)”
[from page 235 of Kansas Social Science Standards dated August 2005]

The web site Primary and Secondary Sources provides the clearest explanation of the difference between primary and secondary sources. Below is an excerpt from that page.

Where the confusion begins
You can’t always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of source it is found in. Articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper about the Iraq war is an eyewitness account, that would be a primary source. If the reporter, however, includes additional materials he or she has gathered through interviews or other investigations, the article would be a secondary source. An interview in the Rolling Stone with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes would be a primary source, but a review of the latest Black Crowes album would be a secondary source. In contrast, scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not.”

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