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Lesson Overview

Historian's Sources

Student Lesson

Section 1: What Are Primary Sources?

Primary and Secondary Sources | The Historical Record

Primary and Secondary Sources

Historians use a wide variety of sources to answer questions about the past. In their research, history scholars use both primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, articles of clothing. Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened.

For example, your history textbook is a secondary source. Someone wrote most of your textbook long after historical events took place. Your textbook may also include some primary sources, such as direct quotes from people living in the past or excerpts from historical documents.

People living in the past left many clues about their lives. These clues include both primary and secondary sources in the form of books, personal papers, government documents, letters, oral accounts, diaries, maps, photographs, reports, novels and short stories, artifacts, coins, stamps, and many other things. Historians call all of these clues together the historical record.

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The Historical Record

The historical record is huge. It contains literally billions of pieces of evidence about the past. Despite its huge size, the historical record gives us just a tiny glimpse of the past. Most of what happened in the past was never documented. Many sources of information about the past have been lost or destroyed. Some primary sources were accumulated simply by accident.

But some historical sources were created and saved by people interested in recording history. People kept journals, wrote diaries and autobiographies, recorded family trees, and saved business and personal letters and papers.

How can the historical record be both huge and limited? What kind of historical records do you leave behind in your daily life?

Do the "Mindwalk Activity" now to help you answer these questions.

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Last updated 09/26/2002