What you can learn from this page:
When you want to research a topic from the past, it's important to place that topic within its broader historical context.
This helps you recognise the significance of any historical sources you might find, and interpret the source's information.
Then identify what you already know about the subject and what you need to clarify. Lastly, make sure you understand what primary and secondary sources are, where to find them and how these terms are relative to the time period, intended usage and subject discipline.
Start by listing any key facts and helpful points that you already know (for example people, organisations or movements, dates, events, places or main issues).
As well as listing your starting points, you should list anything you're unsure of and that you need to confirm or clarify.
You may have lots of unanswered questions at this very early stage of your research and that's OK.
Primary sources are records of firsthand accounts (autobiographies, documentary history books, interviews in contemporary newspapers, government reports).
Primary sources provide us with a real sense of what was happening with a person, event or specific period in time.
Secondary sources are secondhand accounts which analyse and interpret past events using primary sources (books, textbooks, journal articles).
Secondary sources provide us with historical definitions and overviews; they are usually written at a much later time after the historical event or era and draw together a range of useful comments and other relevant information.
Sometimes it can be hard to decide if something may be a primary source or not. Sometimes a secondary source can also serve as a primary source, depending on the context in which you're viewing it and wanting to use it.
For example, a well known author writes an article about a particular historical topic, that would be used as a secondary source. Years later someone decides to research the life and works of that author, in that context that same article would be used as a primary source.
Watch this video to see some other helpful examples.
Chances are, that you're familiar with a variety of primary and secondary sources and use them in everyday life. However, locating primary sources about an academic topic can sometimes be difficult.
Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event and are created during the time that event took place. They can also be created retrospectively at a later date by a participant in those events. They are original documents and usually don't describe or analyse other documents. They can also be creative works.
Some examples of primary sources are:
They can be used as a focal point of a discussion about events. They can be used to back up claims or criticisms. They can be used as evidence for series and research, and they can be used to gain historical perspectives on the topic.
Secondary sources are written by scholars and observers after the fact and interpret or analyse primary sources or events. These sources are at least one step removed from what they are describing. Some examples of secondary sources are:
They can be used to get background information and understand the scope of a topic. They can be used to see what others have discussed or get opinions. You can use them to learn how recent events affect or fit into the larger picture and they can help you understand the significance of events, data, works of literature and art.
Let's look at an example: a primary source for a paper about the placebo effect could be data from a medical trial which is published in an academic journal. Secondary sources for this topic could include books about medication, the placebo effect and health in general, or websites which define various anxiety disorders.
One thing to keep in mind is that a source's classification as either "primary" or "secondary" can change depending on the topic that you're studying. For example, if you are writing about how the news is being represented on the internet, a news site like CNN might be considered a primary source. If you're studying news on the internet, cnn.com represents the object that you're studying.
However, if you're writing about political elections and you find an article on cnn.com that analyses them, the article will be considered a secondary source, since, in this case, you're studying the elections, an article on cnn.com is one step removed from your topic.
For an effective research paper, try to use both primary and secondary sources that are an original source of data, historical information or creative works, as well as secondary sources which summarize, analyse or comment on ideas or events.
Check your subject reading lists for details of key primary and secondary sources your lecturers may expect you to read.
Check the footnotes and bibliographies of the books and articles you're reading for background information.
Where and how will you look for an historical overview or background information to help you better understand your broader topic area? You may like to practice your skills with our tutorial below.