Often students come to the Gale Family Library to research primary source materials, but find they’re not quite sure what a primary source is. Learn the difference between primary and secondary sources with examples from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections.
[Primary and Secondary Sources]
[What is a Primary sources?]
Narrator: Primary means first or firsthand. So think of primary sources as materials that are firsthand. They’re connected to a historical event because they were created during the time of the event or because they involve someone who participated firsthand.
For example, if you’re researching the civil rights movement in Minnesota, you might find primary sources related to Matthew Little, a Minneapolis civil rights activist who went to the March on Washington in 1963. Little listened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Little wrote notes and letters about that day and someone took photos of Little at the march. Notes, letters, photos: these are all primary sources because they document Little’s firsthand experiences with the civil rights movement.
In your research, you might also find this oral history interview with civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson, which is also a primary source.
Johnson: These organizations all got together and formed a coalition.
Narrator: Even though the interview was recorded after the civil rights movement, it’s still a primary source because Johnson was involved, firsthand, in the movement.
Other examples of primary sources include newspaper articles, autobiographies, maps, government records, art, and films. As long as the item is from the time you’re researching or documents someone’s firsthand experience, it’s a primary source.
Something else to remember: it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the original primary source or a copy of the primary source. They are both primary sources.
[What is a Secondary sources?]
Secondary, of course, means after first. So secondary sources are materials created after a historical event.
Let’s say you’re still researching the civil rights movement and you’re looking for information about Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota’s first female African American lawyer. This article about Smith was written by a law professor in 2001, well after the civil rights movement, so it’s a secondary source. Here’s a web page about Smith. It was created in 2014, so it’s also a secondary source.
Secondary sources include books, biographies, articles, dissertations, websites, and documentary films; as long as they were written about a person or historical event at a later time.
Many secondary sources get their information from primary sources. Just look at the footnotes or bibliography at the end of the secondary source to see what primary sources were used.
Let’s test your knowledge. Here’s a photocopy of the Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper from April 1968, soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is this a primary or secondary source?
It's a primary source because the newspaper is from the time of the assassination. Even though it’s a photocopy and not the original paper itself, it’s still a primary source.
Here’s a book about the civil rights movement, written by a history professor and published in 1990. Is it a primary or secondary source?
It’s a secondary source, because it was written after the civil rights movement by someone who was not a firsthand participant.
This is a book of letters written by Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It was published in 2007. Is it a primary or secondary source?
It’s a primary source. Even though it was published in 2007, it contains copies of letters written by Robinson, a firsthand participant in the civil rights movement.
Now that you know what primary and secondary sources are, have fun researching. And remember if you need help, ask a librarian. You can call, email, or ask questions in person. Visit www.mnhs.org/library for more information.