Locating Materials

Using The Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archives

Using History Databases and the Internet
Interpreting Materials


Interpreting
Photographs


Interpreting
Documents


Interpreting
Artifacts


Interpreting
Oral History

Teaching Materials

African Americans

Immigration & Settlement

Migration and Immigration to the Columbia River Basin

Ethnic Culture and Identity in the Columbia River Basin, 1850-1950


Historical Overviews

African Americans
Basque Americans
Chinese Americans
German Americans
Japanese Americans
Mexican Americans

Coming Soon:

Italian Americans

Jewish Americans
Russian Americans


 

 

 


Introduction 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.

The 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.

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