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Research Guides

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events after they happened (this could be a few years later or centuries later). In other words, secondary sources are what historians (and History Day participants) create.

Historians' creations usually come in the form of books and journal articles. They are an analysis and interpretation of the past based on evidence provided by primary sources. Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • An article by Sarah Purcell published in 2012 on Henry Clay's funeral.
  • A book by Hasan Kayali published in 1997 on the last years of the Ottoman Empire.
  • A biography of William Brewster (who lived from 1560-1644) by Ashbel Steele published in 1857.
  • A lecture by historian Gary Gallagher about the Civil War.

Why Use Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are useful to:

  • Introduce a topic. You can get the who, what & where of a topic by looking at encyclopedias and textbooks which are specialized types of secondary sources. Knowing the who, what & where of a topic is the first step in researching a topic and discovering the "how" and "why".
  • Provide historical/broader context for a topic. For example, if you are researching women's suffrage in Washington State, you may want to use a secondary source to get information on how the state effort compared to the national and international suffrage movement.
  • Provide historiographical context for a topic. In other words, how has this topic been interpreted by past historians. History is not stagnant but is constantly being reinterpreted in light of new evidence and new outlooks.
  • Help you find primary sources. A good secondary source will have footnotes and a bibliography so you can trace the historian's trail of evidence. You can then find this evidence and present your own interpretation.

Journal Articles

Academic articles, those published in scholarly journals, are the bedrock of most academic disciplines. In the field of historical research, they are considered secondary sources. They provide an indepth analysis of narrow topics. Prior to publishing, articles are vetted through a process called peer-review. Most articles include footnotes which can lead you to other material on a topic.