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National History Day Resources for Instructors and Student-Researchers

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources: defined as something created at the time of the event.  Primary sources are usually first-hand accounts of something that has happened.  Think about it this way... if someone from the time period could actually lay their hands on it (newspaper, diary, photograph, etc) then it is probably a primary source. 

Examples of primary source material: 

  • Newspaper reports that are reporting at the time of the event ON the event 
  • Speeches
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Interviews/Oral Histories 
  • Visual media like photographs, video, or even audio that are created during the event
  • Data, such as raw datasets, census information, etc. *Note: this is the raw information that has not been analyzed yet. 
  • Original research
  • Texts of laws 


Secondary Sources: defined as sources that describe, report, analyze, and/or quote from original primary sources.  Secondary sources are not created at the time of the event, but rather interpret the event through the use of primary sources.  

Examples of secondary source material:

  • Popular and scholarly articles on a topic, event, or even a piece of art/performance 
  • Books about a person, topic, or event 
  • Data analysis and interpretation (usually used within scholarly articles and books)
  • Documentaries 


Where it can get weird...

Sometimes secondary sources can be primary sources and this is where you need to think critically.  

  • Example: a high school textbook would most often be considered a secondary source because it is describing a topic and not contributing any original research to the topic.  HOWEVER, if you were going to do research on the history of textbooks in high school curriculums, then this textbook could be used as a primary source.  


Need more help? Here is a link to a video by EasyBib that gives an overview of the differences:

Information Timeline: How Information Ages

In order to find and effectively use information, you need to first understand how it is produced.  This is where the information timeline comes in - it shows the progression of information about an event or topic.  Understanding this timeline will help you better evaluate what sources you should turn to in order to find the best information.  

Information Timeline over Blue Arrow. Coming down from blue arrow are orange arrows that point to an event in the information timeline. Orange arrow one point to Day Of when social media, internet, and T.V. produce information after an event has occurred. Orange Arrow Two points to Week Of when newspapers produce information after an event has occurred. Orange Arrow 3 points to Week After when popular magazines produce information about an event that has occurred.  Orange Arrow four points to Months After when scholarly journals produce information on an event that has occurred.  And Orange Arrow five is point to year or years after when books, government reports, and reference material is produced on an event that has occurred.

Day Of: Social Media, Internet, TV

  • Breaking information
  • Can be inaccurate, incomplete, biased, and highly emotional

Week Of and Week(s) After: Newspapers 

  • More detailed and factual reporting
  • Quotes from experts, statistics, and/or photographs
  • Written by journalists for general audience (not scholarly)
  • Opinion pieces begin to appear 

Week(s) After: Popular Magazines

  • More detailed reporting including interviews, opinions, and analysis
  • Authors are diverse: professional journalists, commentators, scholars, or experts in the field
  • Factual information BUT can have bias reflecting the publication

Months After: Scholarly Journals

  • Detailed analysis backed by evidence-based research
  • Peer-reviewed which helps ensure accuracy and quality
  • Detailed bibliographies
  • Written by experts and scholars in the field
  • Written for a specific audience (scholars) - can be difficult to understand because of discipline-specific language or jargon

A Year After: Books

  • In-depth coverage often providing comprehensive overviews of topic
  • Detailed bibliographies
  • May have bias as authors' credentials and authority can vary 
  • Can be scholarly (detailed analysis) or popular (general discussion)

Years After: Reference Books

  • Factual information written with little emotion 
  • Authors are scholars and/or experts
  • Broad coverage of a topic 
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