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Home >> Teaching Tips >> Primary & Secondary Sources: What Are They?

Primary & Secondary Sources: What Are They?

Primary Sources
This website uses primary sources to tell the story of the fur trade in Canada. A primary source is an original record of people, places and experiences. It is created very close to the time of the actual event and may even be an eye-witness account. Letters, diaries and photographs are examples of primary sources. There is often only one copy of a primary source. Primary sources are the building blocks of history. We create them today just as people did in the past. Some of our modern records may become the historical records of tomorrow. A document does not have to be old to be considered a primary source.
Secondary Sources
Unlike primary sources, secondary sources are usually accounts of a person, place or experience made after the occurrence or time period. Rather than record personal observations they explain, interpret, or analyze the records of an event. Although writers may try to be fair or objective, they cannot help but reflect their personal biases and experiences. Writers may also project the bias and attitudes of the time period within which they are writing.
Published Primary Sources
Journals, diaries, and other documents are published because someone believes that other people would enjoy or benefit from reading such material. Or, they may think that this material should reach as many people as possible.

While these are both good reasons, when primary material is reproduced, it may have been edited to make it shorter or easier to understand. It is often not known if the author was involved in the editing process. If the publication appears long after the lifetime of the original author, it is obvious that he or she was not responsible for any changes.

Was something left out? Were words or phrases misunderstood or misinterpreted? Whenever possible we tried to find the original primary source, but this was not always possible. So, we used the next best thing, published versions of primary sources.