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Types of Sources and Where to Find Them: Secondary Sources



This is the second video in a two-part tutorial on primary and secondary sources. Historians and other scholars classify sources as primary or secondary. Whereas primary sources are considered the raw material of the historical record, and are usually created around the same time as the events they purport to document, secondary sources are further removed from these historical events or circumstances. Typically, secondary sources offer an interpretation of the past based on analysis and synthesis of primary sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • surveys of broad historical periods,
  • works that focus on specific events or topics,
  • literary and cultural criticism,
  • and works on theory and methodology.

Secondary sources can be found in books, journals, or Internet resources.

When we talk about secondary sources, most of the time we are referring to the published scholarship on a subject, rather than supplementary material like bibliographies, encyclopedias, handbooks, and so forth. These supplementary materials are sometimes referred to as tertiary sources.

A secondary source is analytical and interpretive. It may offer a new reading of historical events and primary sources that have been analyzed before, or present an analysis of events and sources that were previously unknown or not written about. A secondary source might also synthesize the work of other historians in order to formulate a totally new interpretation. You will use secondary sources to identify the main currents of thought on your topic, and to answer questions, like:

  • Which historians have taken up this topic?
  • What were their main arguments?
  • How have historians’ understanding of the topic changed over time?

To identify secondary literature, you can do subject searches in the library catalog to find books, or subject searches in article databases to find articles. The most important databases for finding peer-reviewed articles by historians are: America: History and Life, which covers the history of North America and Historical Abstracts, which covers the rest of the world since 1450. You can also consult standard published bibliographies, like the American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature, or specialized bibliographies, like this bibliography of medieval warfare. You may find more lengthy treatments of the topic published as book chapters, journal articles, or even as individual monographs. You can read about the topic in a subject encyclopedia and look at the bibliography at the end of the entry. You can find a major work of scholarship on the topic, and follow up on the sources used by the author.

Most of the time you will find the secondary literature you need by using

  • the library catalog,
  • the appropriate article databases,
  • subject encyclopedias,
  • bibliographies,
  • and by consulting with your instructor.

Remember to keep track of all the sources you’ve used. At some point, you’ll want to list them in a bibliography of your own.