to Primary and Secondary Sources
Historians use a variety of sources to try to make sense of the
past. To begin their research, they read widely on their subject
in the secondary literature, collect available primary information
about the topic, and then select portions of their research materials
that in particular illuminate the topic or research question.
They sift through their notes, interpret the material in light
of their experience and knowledge, and present their findings
to a larger audience in books, articles, exhibits, films, web
sites, and performances.
Historians usually group sources into two broad categories: primary
and secondary. Think of secondary sources as "second-hand,"
that is, they are interpretations of topics by scholars and others,
somewhat removed or distant from the subject. Secondary sources
include books, journals, magazine or newspaper articles, dissertations,
reports, and so on. Some of these sources at times can be considered
primary sources. For example, a reporter's eyewitness account
of a 1968 civil rights demonstration could be considered a primary
source if published at the time of the event. A retrospective
newspaper account of the same event, but published in 1998 on
the thirtieth anniversary of the demonstration, would be considered
a secondary source. The later account would be filtered through
the decades and provide additional context, information, or biases
not apparent in the more immediate 1968 report.
Primary sources are the "stuff" that make history, or
the history that historians come to understand through these available
sources. Primary sources are the "first-hand" observations
or accounts of actual events, experiences, people, and places.
They are from the time under examination. These sources include
written reminiscences, correspondence, journals and diaries, reports,
photographs, oral history interviews, manuscripts, advertisements,
maps, music, and so on.
Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive features a rich array
of primary sources from the collections of the Idaho State Historical
Society, Oregon Historical Society, Washington State Historical
Society, and Washington State University Manuscripts and Records.
By selecting and analyzing the sources related to your research
topic or area of interest, you will develop a greater understanding
of the history of many ethnic groups in the Columbia River Basin
region. These tutorials provide suggestions on how to interpret
documents, photographs, and oral history.