Primary Sources in American History & Politics
"What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times ... and you were there." (from the CBS TV program, You Are There, hosted by Walter Cronkite, 1953-1957) Primary sources and documentary histories allow the reader to be "a fly on the wall" at significant historical events.
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What are the Differences between Primary and Secondary Sources
When analyzing primary sources, historians consider the type of primary source under study. Different primary sources were created for different reasons.
Types of Primary Sources:
Published Documents: Some primary sources are published documents, were created for large audiences, and were widely distributed. These sources may include newspapers, government documents, advertisements, maps, pamphlets, posters, and court decisions.
Unpublished Documents: Some primary sources are unpublished such as personal letters, diaries, journals, wills, deeds, school report cards, financial ledgers, and minutes of meetings. Unpublished records may be more difficult to find because few copies exist or they are in the possession of private individuals.
Oral Traditions/Oral Histories: These primary sources are as old as human beings and existed before the written word. Oral traditions were the way in which knowledge and wisdom were passed from generation to generation. Interviews and recordings of witnesses to historical events provide exciting stories, anecdotes, and other information about the past.
Visual Documents/Artifacts:These primary sources include photographs, films, paintings, and other types of artwork. Visual documents show evidence of the changes in a culture over time.
Secondary sources provide an analysis, an explanation, or a restatement of a primary source. Many secondary sources use primary sources to prove a point or to try to persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion. Examples include dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books or journal articles that interpret or review research works. Secondary sources may incorporate primary source data or eyewitness accounts.