Distinguishing Primary Sources
from Secondary Sources
You must always question your sources. Are they good, credible sources that will convince your reader? To distinguish if a source is good or not, you must first identity it as either a :
PRIMARY SOURCE (a "firsthand" or eyewitness account from diaries, documents, speeches, survey data, etc.)
SECONDARY SOURCE (a "secondhand" account usually based upon a "firsthand " account and would typically appear in newspapers, encyclopedias, or other similar types of publications.)
You must always question an author's motives. Never take the information at face value just because it is in print. Writers publish their ideas based on their own interpretation of primary sources. For example, a historian writing about the Challenger explosion may focus more on public pressure, or on the engineers point of view, or on NASA officials--or even the technical shortcomings of the booster rocket. In any event, certain ideas and events would be highlighted while others wouldn't. Therefore, when writing about a topic, realize secondary sources have already been filtered by someone else's point of view.
However, even a primary source must be questioned in terms of point of view. For example, the diary of a WW II veteran may represent an individual who thrived on the glory of battle and nothing else. In any event, this is one point of view about the war and may not represent the majority of those in the ranks.
Try our self-test to see if you can distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
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last updated on 3/30/99