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Women in American History

Learn how to research topics in women's history in the United States

Primary & Secondary Information

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original materials that were created firsthand; they have not been run through the filter of interpretation. Often they are created during the time period that is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.

Why Use Primary Sources:

Because primary sources are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation, they are a great way to gain insight into and an understanding of an event or topic. 

For more information and help with finding Primary Sources, check out our Find Primary Sources research guide.

What Are Secondary Sources?

secondary sourcesSecondary information is made up of accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. It is comprised of interpretations and evaluations of primary information. Secondary information is not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.

Examples are:

  • Biographies
  • Books
  • Commentaries
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies (used to locate primary & secondary sources)
  • Journal Articles

Why Use Secondary Sources:

Because secondary sources are written with the benefit of hindsight and interpretation, they are useful at helping you understand your topic and seeing what scholars and other experts have to say about it.

Finding Secondary Sources:

You'll find secondary information in books and online. In fact, the majority of sources that you'll find will be secondary sources. To find them you can simply add these words to the end of your topic search in WorldCat (the MJC library catalog), library databases, and the Web.


Popular, Substantive, and Scholarly Sources

Unless otherwise instructed by your teacher, you'll probably want to use a variety sources to help you gain a complete understanding of your topic. Sources of information generally fall within three categories.These categories are  Popular, Substantive, and Scholarly (or Peer Reviewed). To use them skillfully you need to be able to identify them and understand their differences.

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Watch the brief video below for more information: