Historical sources are the main way that we can interact with and understand more about past events. Learning from history is essential, as it helps us know how we got here. We can explore events that shaped our society and even discover what society was like back then through the personal accounts of the people who lived through it.

What are the three types of sources?

  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Tertiary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source provides original information on an event, topic, or era from that period in time. Crucially, the data has to be first-hand. That means it was produced by someone who experienced that event, topic, or era.

Primary sources can take many shapes. They don’t just have to be interviews or diaries, although these may be more likely to survive than other forms. They could have been created in memoirs or oral histories during or after the event.

For non-historical topics, primary sources might include data and surveys – the raw figures you must interpret yourself to make any sense of.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is a second-hand account of history. Usually, these look at and interpret primary sources, using these to build up a clearer picture of what happened.

They don’t need to have been created at the time; they could have been produced centuries or millennia later! Think of textbooks and school essays that use quotations from other places.

Some secondary sources can be used as historical sources. There’s a difference between a textbook written in the 1800s versus one written in the present day, so you could use them to demonstrate how opinions or understanding of a topic have changed over time.

What is a tertiary source?

A tertiary source is one that neither provides original information nor interprets it. Instead, tertiary sources tend to collect or summarise other sources, guiding people toward this information. For example, some dictionaries and encyclopedias can be tertiary, along with textbooks, fact books, and handbooks.

In many cases, tertiary sources aren’t considered good sources for writing essays or reports. However, they’re still vital for our research and shouldn’t be ignored!

Why is it essential to know about historical sources?

Historical sources give us an in-depth understanding of things that have happened in the past from the point of view of the people who lived through them. They’re usually but not always primary sources.

Even something as simple as a shopping list from 100 years ago can help us understand how the people who came before us lived. What did they buy? How much money would this have cost? What did they earn? How many people did they have to feed in their family? It might be possible to answer some of these questions through something that simple, so it’s a good demonstration of the power of a historical source!

10 Examples of Historical Sources

  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Newspaper reports
  • Original photographs
  • Recordings or transcripts of speeches
  • Plays
  • Paintings
  • Oral histories
  • Artifacts and relics
  • Archaeological sites
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