Primary sources are the first-hand documents of history, letters, original papers, autobiographies, and paintings that people have made themselves. A primary source can be anything from a letter to a wartime general or an original diagram for the first airplane.As long as it is a firsthand account, it counts.
Secondary sources are everything else, the articles, blog posts, essays, and analysis’s done by others long after the original time period is done. They are by far the most common things that people will find when they search the internet or even the libraries for a topic.
However, even though they are rarer than secondary sources, primary sources are more valuable because they are living history. The only question is, how to find them in an internet full of secondary sources?
How to find them
Going on free online research journals or databases is a good way to find scholarly essays and papers on a certain topic, and those papers had to cite or use primary sources in their writings. So by choosing a few essays that fit the topic and scrolling down to their bibliography, several high-quality primary sources can be found and selected.
In addition, several museums and exhibits might have high-quality sources on display, including original sound bites, text pages, buried artifacts, or even original paintings or sculptures.
The Library of Congress, the national archives, and other databases can often take students to high-quality sources, and once they are found the question becomes what to do with them.
How to use primary sources
These high-quality documents, depending on when they were written, might be hard to understand. For example, primary sources about Rome or Shakespeare might be written in different languages or a different dialect of English and might require a translation.
However, it can be cool to read the direct words of an influential person or see the exact item used during a period in history, and it almost makes the history itself come alive. It’s one thing to read about the destructive power of the first ever cannon, but it’s another to go to a museum and see it or read the firsthand account of how it was used.
Primary sources, like all sources in a paper, must be cited properly if they are going to be used and using them often enables critical thinking skills. Many primary sources don’t have too much context around them, and if outside knowledge isn’t used to supplement the source, people have to think about why they matter.
Think about that
Many primary sources force people to make inferences based on the knowledge that the source provides, and the primary source can also provide knowledge that didn’t exist in a textbook, especially if that source is a person who was there when an event in history had gone down.
So while they are harder to find and understand, a primary source is a gateway to real and unaltered history and can provide several benefits to help with understanding the time it came from.