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History, General Resources

While history courses each have their own unique focus, there are some general principles that apply to almost every history class in terms of research.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

A fundamental aspect of historical research is using primary as well as secondary sources of information. The easiest way to differentiate between the two concepts is that secondary sources rely on primary sources for their facts. As the philosopher David Hume once said: “If I ask why you believe any particular matter of fact, which you relate, you must tell me some reason; and this reason will be some other fact, connected with it. But as you cannot proceed after this manner, in infinitum, you must at last terminate in some fact, which is present to your memory or senses; or must allow that your belief is entirely without foundation.” Or, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." 

Primary sources are the facts or the evidence a researcher uses to write a book or an article which are considered "secondary sources" that derive from those facts or evidence. So if books and articles are examples of secondary sources, what are some examples of primary sources?

  • journals/diaries
  • letters
  • official documents
  • newspaper and magazine articles written during the time you are studying
  • video or film that documents an event. Note that a documentary is not a primary source, although it uses primary source footage: the footage it shows is primary, the documentary as a whole is secondary. A motion picture from the time you are studying would be a primary source, just like any artifact created by people in the past.
  • audio recordings
  • photographs 
  • artwork and other artifacts
  • statistical information, polling information, scientific lab reports, or any other data created in the past

Keep in mind that today most primary source material is being created electronically: your phone is helping you create a massive amount of primary source material about your life through:

  • social media posts
  • emails
  • photos
  • videos

One useful trick for finding primary sources is to use some specific keywords when doing your search. For more about keywords and searching, look at the Keywords and Boolean tabs. The keywords to utilize when searching for primary sources are: sources, diaries, correspondence. Examples would be 

"Tudor England" AND sources

"Transcontinental Railroad" AND diaries

"Simon Bolivar" AND correspondence

Again, for an explanation of the AND please go to the Boolean tab.

Another very simple way to find primary sources is to go to the Author search and type in the name of an historical figure like: Roosevelt, Eleanor. In this example, everything that comes up will have been written by Eleanor Roosevelt, which means that it will automatically be primary source material.