Primary & Secondary Sources

How do we know what we know about history? This question should be among the first that you ask whenever you begin to study any aspect of the past. To address that question, consider your sources. Almost all historical evidence fits into two broad categories. It comes either from primary or secondary sources. It is our job to interrogate the different materials that we read.

Evidence created within the general timeframe of the event is contained in primary sources. People who were involved in or who observed historical events might leave behind diaries, journals, official records or manuscripts, poetry, short stories, newspaper reports, or other types of information. Although generated after the fact, oral history interviews also fit into the category of primary source material. Oral histories are generally included in the category of primary source material because the interviewees either participated in the event years earlier, or they are members of the cultural group under study. Non-written primary sources include artifacts, artwork, and films that were made at the time of the event. Primary sources are identified by the timeframe of their creation, not by their form.

Secondary sources present historians’ or other authors’ interpretations of a set of primary sources. In other words, these sources attempt to solve historical puzzles by drawing conclusions about first-hand evidence. Like primary materials, they can also take many forms. Documentary or feature films, lectures, blog posts, textbooks, and monographs are all examples of secondary sources. Also like primary sources, secondary materials are shaped by the author’s focus, questions, and biases.

To complicate matters, many source materials switch categories based on the types of questions that the researcher asks of the past. For example, many historians have recently explored questions about how textbooks in a given time and place presented history to students. If the research question is “how was the Great Depression portrayed in U.S. textbooks during the 1950s and 1960s?,” then textbooks from that time period would be primary sources for this particular project.

Primary & Secondary Sources

Patrick Rael at Bowdoin College has developed a simple acronym to aid our evaluation of primary and secondary sources: PAPER. Although Rael’s guide is directed toward the reading of primary sources, much of its insights apply to secondary materials as well. Here is his explanation of the acronym:

  • Purpose of the author in preparing the document
  • Argument and strategy he or she uses to achieve those goals
  • Presuppositions and values (those in the text, and our own)
  • Epistemology (evaluation of truth content)
  • Relationship to other texts (compare and contrast, place in context)

As you consider the author’s purpose, ask questions about the author’s own background and place in his or her society. What stake does the author have in the issue at hand? What is the thesis or central argument of the document? What types of evidence help you to answer those questions? Sometimes it will be impossible to address those types of questions without an appeal to outside materials.

If you are able to identify the author’s thesis, it will be much easier for you to evaluate the strategy that he or she uses to support it. Unfortunately, it is often necessary to read between the lines to find an author’s argument. In that case, ask yourself what types of conclusions the author attempts to lead you toward. What rhetorical and argumentative strategies does the author use? Is the author’s line of reasoning and use of evidence convincing? Why or why not?

In evaluating an author’s presuppositions and values, you will work to place the document in historical context. Think about the ways in which an author’s values or ideas differ from those of our own time and place. Also consider the value judgments that you make as a reader. Do you find certain aspects of the document to be offensive? Would people of the author’s time and place have felt the same way? What do these differences say about the ways in which you should interpret the document?

The last two points in the acronym, epistemology and relationship, require you to compare and contrast the source with others in order to evaluate the reliability of the text. If reading a primary source, consider how it relates to secondary sources that you have read on the topic. Does it support the interpretations provided in secondary literature? How does it compare to other primary sources of the same event? Answers to these types of questions will help you draw your own conclusions about the author’s credibility.

One other important issue to think about as you read is the difference between evidence and interpretation. Although historians use primary sources as evidence of what happened in the past, the authors or creators of primary texts and images also drew conclusions about the events that they witnessed or participated in. Whether in a primary or secondary source, then, evidence includes the verifiable pieces of information that undergird the text’s arguments, including dates, locations, and certain occurrences. Interpretations, on the other hand, are the author’s explanations and understandings of the evidence. For example, whenever an author tells you that a piece of information is particularly significant, they are offering an interpretation.

Keep these questions in mind as you read about and study New Mexico’s histories.

Lesson tags: The History of New Mexico Resource