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Sources for historical research: Secondary sources

A guide to finding sources for historical research

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Why Use Secondary Sources?

It is important to locate, read and refer to secondary sources in your writing.

Secondary sources:

  • provide vital background information. Having as much knowledge as possible about the text or event about which you are researching is crucial. Familiarising yourself with what has been written about your topic will allow you to write more knowledgeably,
  • inform you as to what others have said so you can avoid repeating ideas that are already out there,
  • can be used to support your ideas or to show an alternative view. You can create an argument that shows all points of view.

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources describe, analyse, interpret or draw conclusions from a primary source. Secondary sources are created after the studied event/work took place or the studied work was created. They can therefore take into consideration other events and place a primary source in its historical context. Secondary sources are not evidence but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.

Scholars generally use the term secondary source to refer to books, sections of edited books, journal articles, encylopedia and dictionary entries, newspaper and magazine reports and so on. This chart shows the distinction between primary and secondary sources:

  Primary Source Secondary Source
History Bayeux Tapestry Book titled: The Battle of Hastings : sources and interpretations
Anthropology Field notes Article in Journal of African cultural studies
Literature Jane Austen novel Book title: Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist's development through the surviving papers
Politics Political cartoon Book titled: Philippine cartoons : political caricature of the American era, 1900-1941

Note that science disciplines may define secondary sources differently. This guide addresses the Social Sciences and Humanities definition.

Evaluating Secondary Sources

 Evaluation of sources is essential to scholarly research. Consider the following when looking for reliable secondary sources:

  • Who is the author? Are they a scholar in the field?
  • Was the book/ journal published by a scholarly publisher?
  • What is the purpose of the text or motive for writing it?
  • Does the writer have an obvious bias?
  • Does the book/ article have an extensive bibliography?
  • What are the primary sources referred to by the author?
  • What secondary sources are used by the author?
  • Does the text have citations enabling you to check the author's sources.

 

For more information on evaluating sources in general and internet sources in particular, look at: