What Do Historians Mean by a Primary Source?

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What Do Historians Mean by a Primary Source?

What do historians mean by a primary source? What do historians mean by a secondary source? (Hint: Do some online research. Several college history departments have online guides for their students. Remember to include a citation for any research you use to help formulate your answer.)

        When historians reference to a primary source they are referring to a document or object from the period under study. A primary source is a firsthand account of the event under research. For example, it could be a journal entry of a soldier in a war, or a drawing of a battle drawn by someone who was there. The main point of emphasis for an item to be a primary source is that it has to provide firsthand evidence about the event.

        A secondary source do not offer that firsthand experience, they are account or interpretations of the event. Often a secondary source offer analysis or interpretation of events. They can still describe and discuss what happened but it is not an original account. These secondary sources can be articles in scholarly journals and still have validity and information to offer but they are not original accounts.


        “Primary and Secondary Sources.” Ithaca College Library. Accessed March 02, 2017. https://library.ithaca.edu/sp/subjects/primary.

“Using Primary Sources.” Library of Congress. Accessed March 02, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources.

Can a primary source be biased?  If so, how?  Give an example of bias using one of the assigned primary documents on farming. Why might a historian still use this document?

        A primary source can be biased. Since a primary source is a firsthand account of an event, the person who is writing the account has the potential to leave out information. They may choose to do this if the missing information would disagree with their point or if it does not coincide with the depiction of the event they are trying to display. Another potential for bias is if they only see one side of an argument. If you look at primary sources from both sides of the two world wars, you would get very different accounts. Propaganda could also be considered primary sources as they are from the time but propaganda is very biased.

        An example of bias in a primary document could be taken from Benjamin Rush’s document. In his writing he states that the settlers “often double the value of an old farm in a few years, and grow rich on farms”. While there were many farmers who did gain value to their land and grow rich, there were also many that failed and had to move on after they lost everything. Since Rush was writing to praise the farmers of Pennsylvania, he was selective about writing about the success stories or he failed to meet the ones who had not succeeded. This shows how a primary document can be biased but a historian may still use this document for many reasons. One might be that they are trying to write something about how good life was for farmers in Pennsylvania so they would use this source as it coincides with their argument. Another reason would be if they are trying to present two opposing sides so they would choose one that presents it in a positive light, and another that presents it in a negative light.