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History (HIS): Home


This guide will help history students:

  •  Identify, locate and use primary sources.
  •  Define, find and use secondary sources.
  • Cite sources appropriately using APA format.    

Use the tabs across the top of the guide to access each section of the guide.               

Image: Bastille, eastern façade , drawing of 1790 or 1791.(Public Domain) Retrieved from

(Guide creator: Teresa Grimm.  Currently maintained by Jamie Kellner.)

Primary & Secondary Sources

​(Video from Minnesota Historical Society.)

Primary Source: Whether or not something is a primary source is determined by how the researcher is using the information. Different fields have slightly different ways of identifying a primary source.

In the humanities (eg., philosophy, religion, history), a primary source is defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied by actual participants or eye-witnesses or  something documented afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.**

Examples: diaries, letters, treaties, laws, autobiographies, artifacts, art, photographs, film footage, financial records, and newspapers from the time period.

In the social sciences (eg., psychology, economics, sociology), the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.**

In the natural sciences (eg., physics, chemistry, biology), a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.**

Secondary Source: "A secondary source interprets and analyzes a primary source. A secondary source is one or more steps removed from the event."***

Examples: encyclopedias, history books, articles, films and books by someone not involved directly in the event who is retelling or analyzing the primary source.

**source: Lafette College Library

***source: Princeton Library 


Search tips for history students

When selecting a topic, consider exploring a topic that interested you in your textbook. Carefully review footnotes and references provided in the textbook to lead you to relevant documents. Then search in the library's online resources for articles and books on the topic. 

Many secondary sources can lead you to relevant primary sources. Carefully examine the references cited by the author to see what primary sources were used. Seek out background information on your topic in an encyclopedia. Review the sources cited.

Need some help?

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James Kellner
Distance Education Librarian
W3718 South Dr.
Plymouth, WI 53073
920-565-1038 ext. 2419
John Esch Library | Lakeland University | W3718 South Drive | Plymouth, WI 53073 | (920) 565-1038 ext. 2420