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THIST 290: A World History of Food -- Sundermann: Popular Secondary Sources

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are pieces created some time after a historical event that provide analysis and attempt to understand a specific event or movement in historical or cultural context. Secondary sources may include articles, books, book chapters, podcasts, and documentaries.

What makes it a "popular" source?

"Popular" refers to the intended audience of the piece--the general public or a non-expert audience. Popular sources may be written by professors and experts, but they can also be authored by journalists or literary authors who have done research on a historical event. Unlike scholarly secondary sources, popular secondary sources have a much wider range of mediums or formats because they shift with technology and the public's tastes. Some common popular sources include:

  • Popular history books. While the author will have done extensive research, there is a priority to create an engaging narrative and discuss historical events in language that is accessible to a general reader with no previous knowledge. Often there are fewer or no citations.
  • Magazine articles. Magazines such as National Geographic or the Smithsonian will publish articles for a general audience. They may have a few citations, but they generally have gone through an editorial process, not a peer-review process.
  • Documentaries, podcasts and radio shows. The host may or may not be an academic expert, but generally has done extensive research (we hope!). There is generally an even greater emphasis on narrative or analysis.

Assessing popular secondary sources

It's important that you use your information literacy skills to assess if popular secondary sources are trustworthy and useful. Anyone with a smartphone can make a podcast or a website, so how does the source demonstrate that it has done due diligence and good research?

  • Look for citations, even just a few. Does your podcast refer to historians or authors? Does the article link out to other research? These are good signs.
  • Does the source engage directly with primary sources? Does it analyze actual speeches, newspaper articles, etc. or does it rely on hearsay and generalizations?
  • Is it affiliated with a trustworthy organization? This might be a radio or news affiliate like NPR, non-profit organizations, or universities.
  • Does the author provide their background? How do they establish expertise? If they don't have an "about" page that lists their experience, whether in journalism or history, you may want to be skeptical.

Sample of popular news and magazine sources