Primary Sources and Secondary Sources
What is a Primary Source?
A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you’ve chosen to study or by people who were observers of or participants in that event or topic.
If, for example, your topic is the experience of workers in the Chicago packinghouses during the first decades of the twentieth century, your primary sources might be:
- Chicago newspapers, c. 1900-1920, in a variety of languages.
- A short film, such as an actualité, made during the period that shows the yards.
- Settlement house records and manuscripts.
- Novels about the packing yards, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).
- U.S. census records concerning neighborhood residents for 1900 and 1910.
- A mechanical conveyor system, used to move carcasses from one room to another at the time and place you are researching.
- Autobiographies of meat packing executives, workers, etc., published even many years later.
- Maps that show the location of the packing house plants, made during the period you are studying.
- Music, such as work songs or blues ballads, made or adapted during the time you are researching.
- oral histories of packing house employees’ experiences, though a historian’s comments on those oral histories would be a secondary source.
The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a “primary” source is when it was made, not what it is.
Primary sources would not, however, include books written by historians about this topic, because books written by historians are called “secondary” sources. The same goes for historian’s introductions to and editorial comments on collections of primary documents; these materials, too, are secondary sources because they’re twice removed from the actual event or process you’re going to be writing about. So while a historian’s introduction to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906) is a secondary source, the novel itself, written in 1906, is a primary source.
What are Secondary Sources?
Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic. If they’ve used the same sources you were thinking of using and reached the same conclusions, there’s no point in repeating their work, so you should look for another topic. Most of the time, though, you’ll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective.
You want to move past just looking for books in the library. Now that you’re doing your own history research and writing, you should step up to the specialized bibliographies historians use for their own work. Don’t stop looking for secondary sources until you begin to turn up the same titles over and over again. Put those titles you see most frequently and those that are most recently published at the very top of your list of things to read, since they are likely to be the most significant and/or complete interpretations.
After you’ve located and analyzed some primary sources and read the existing secondary literature on your topic, you’re ready to begin researching and writing your paper.
Remember: when lost, confused etc., ask a reference librarian! They are there to help.
[adapted in part from Peggy Pascoe’s site at the University of Oregon]
Questions to Consider When Reading Primary Historical Documents
- When and by whom was this particular document written? What is the format of the document? Has the document been edited? Was the document published? If so, when and where and how? How do the layout, typographical details, and accompanying illustrations inform you about the purpose of the document, the author’s historical and cultural position, and that of the intended audience?
- Who is the author, and why did he or she create the document? Why does the author choose to narrate the text in the manner chosen? Remember that the author of the text (i.e., the person who creates it) and the narrator of the text (i.e. the person who tells it) are not necessarily one and the same.
- Using clues from the document itself, its form, and its content, who is the intended audience for the text? Is the audience regional? National? A particular subset of “the American people”? How do you think the text was received by this audience? How might the text be received by those for whom it was NOT intended?
- How does the text reflect or mask such factors as the class, race, gender, ethnicity, or regional background of its creator/narrator? (Remember that “race” is a factor when dealing with cultural forms of people identified as “white,” that “men” possess “gender,” and that the North and Midwest are regions of local as well as national significance.)
- How does the author describe, grapple with, or ignore contemporaneous historical events? Why? Which cultural myths or ideologies does the author endorse or attack? Are there any oversights or “blind spots” that strike you as particularly salient? What cultural value systems does the writer/narrator embrace?
- From a literary perspective, does the writer employ any generic conventions? Use such devices as metaphor, simile, or other rhetorical devices?
- With what aspects of the text (content, form, style) can you most readily identify? Which seem most foreign to you? Why? Does the document remind you of contemporaneous or present-day cultural forms that you have encountered? How and why?
Asking a Good Historical Question; Or, How to Develop a Manageable Topic
When writing a historical research paper, your goal is to choose a topic and write a paper that
- Asks a good historical question
- Tells how its interpretation connects to previous work by other historians, and
- Offers a well-organized and persuasive thesis of its own.
Let’s take this one step at a time.
- Asking a good historical question:
A good historical question is broad enough to interest you and, hopefully, your classmates. Pick a topic that students in the class and average people walking down the street could find interesting or useful. If you think interracial relationships are an interesting topic and you find the 1940s to be an equally fascinating time period, come up with a question that incorporates both these interests.
For example: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” This question investigates broad issues—interracial romance, sexual identity—but within a specific context—World War Two and the defense industry.
WARNING: Avoid selecting a topic that is too broad: “How has war affected sex in America?” is too broad. It would take several books to answer this question.
A good question is narrow enough so that you can find a persuasive answer to it in time to meet the due date for this class paper.
After selecting a broad topic of interest, narrow it down so that it will not take hundreds of pages to communicate what happened and why it was important. The best way write a narrow question is to put some limitations on the question’s range. Choosing a particular geographic place (a specific location), subject group (who? what groups?), and periodization (from when to when?) are the most common ways to limit a historical question. The example above already contains a limited subject group (whites and African-Americans) and a short time period (WWII, 1941-1945); simply adding a place, such as “in the Bay Area” or “in Puget Sound” further narrows the topic: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers in the San Francisco Bay area create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” is a much more manageable question than one that addresses all defense workers.
WARNING: Avoid a question that only looks at one specific event or process. For example, “What happened on Thursday, Dec.12, 1943 at the Boeing bomber plant in Albany, California?” is too narrow. Perhaps there may have been several important events that day, including a fight over an interracial relationship. However, this question does not position you to explore the larger processes that were taking place in the plant over time, nor why they are important for understanding sex, race and gender in American history.
A good historical question demands an answer that is not just yes or no. Why and how questions are often good choices, and so are questions that ask you to compare and contrast a topic in different locations or time periods; so are questions that ask you to explain the relationship between one event or historical process and another.
Examples (why and how, compare/contrast, explanatory):
- “Why and how did Latina women in Texas challenge their traditional sexual identities in the 1960s?” or “Why and how did captivity narratives define interracial romance in colonial America?”
- “Gay liberation over time and space: The Stonewall Uprising and Harvey Milk assassination protests compared;” or “Sex and gender after the war is over: The contrast between the post-World War One and World War Two eras.”
- “Go West, Young Woman: the rise of the popular newspaper, western boosterism, and the origins of women in professional journalism;” or “Sit-coms, kitchens, and Mom: TV and the redefinition of femininity and domesticity, 1950-1975.”
A good historical question must be phrased in such a way that the question doesn’t predetermine the answer.
Let’s say you’ve decided to study the Tillamook Ku Klux Klan. You’re fascinating by the development of the Klan, and repelled by its ideas, so the first question you think about asking is “Why was the Klan so racist?’ This is not a good historical question, because it assumed what you ought to prove in your paper that the Klan was racist. A better question so ask would be “What was the Klan’s attitude and behavior toward African Americans and immigrants, and why?”
- Connecting your interpretation to previous work by other historians:
Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic. If they’ve used the same sources you were thinking of using and reached the same conclusions, there’s no point in repeating their work, so you should look for another topic. Most of the time, though, you’ll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective. When you are writing your paper, you will cite these historians—both their arguments about the material, and also (sometimes) their research findings. Example: “As Tera Hunter has argued concerning Atlanta’s laundresses, black women workers preferred work outside the homes of their white employers”(and then you would cite Hunter in a footnote, including page numbers).
- Offering a well-organized and persuasive thesis.
Think of your thesis as answering a question. Have your thesis answer a “how” or “why” question, rather than a “what” question. A “what” question will usually land you in the world of endless description, and while some description is often necessary, what you really should focus on is your thinking, your analysis, your insights.
Consider the following questions when reviewing your thesis paragraphs:
- Does the thesis answer a research question?
- What sort of question is the thesis answering?
The thesis paragraph usually has three parts: (1) the subject of your paper, (2) your argument about the topic, and (3) the evidence you’ll be using to argue your thesis.
- Is the thesis overly descriptive? Does it simply describe something in the past? OR,
- Does the thesis present an argument about the material? (This is your goal.)
- Is the thesis clearly and succinctly stated?
- Does the thesis paragraph suggest how the author plans to make his or her argument?
Examples of Thesis Statements: From Bad to Better
“Dorothy Richardson’s The Long Day is a provocative portrayal of working class women’s lives in the early part of the twentieth century.” This is a weak thesis for a paper, since it is overly vague and general, and is basically descriptive in nature. The thesis does not suggest why or how Richardson’s book is “provocative.”
“The narrator of Dorothy Richardson’s 1905 work, The Long Day, exemplifies many ideas and perspectives of the early twentieth century’s new feminism.” This is a bit better, since the author is actually suggesting that there might be an argument about early twentieth-century feminism. But note how the language is still vague. What ideas and perspectives? To what effect does Richardson’s work deal with these ideas?
“While The Long Day’s narrator exemplifies many tenets of the new feminism, such as a commitment to women’s economic independence, her feminist sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes towards female sexual expression.” OK. Now we are getting somewhere! This is a solid thesis. Note that the language is specific (commitment to women’s economic independence, as example). Also, the author has detected a contradiction in the text, a tension that the paper can fruitfully analyze. It could be strengthened further by suggesting HOW Richardson’s sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes.
How to Document Your Sources
In history courses, you should use the traditional endnote or footnote system with superscript numbers when citing sources. Do not use parenthetical author-page numbers as a general rule. Exceptions include: short discussion assignments; five page analytical papers where you have been assigned the specific texts that you are analyzing.
The preferred guide for citations in history is The Chicago Manual of Style. The University of Wisconsin’s writing center page offers a helpful introduction to the traditional method of citing sources laid out in The Chicago Manual. Also visit U of T’s advice file on documenting sources for a concise overview on the traditional method.
What is a thesis statement?
Your thesis statement is one of the most important parts of your paper. It expresses your main argument succinctly and explains why your argument is historically significant. Think of your thesis as a promise you make to your reader about what your paper will argue. Then, spend the rest of your paper--each body paragraph--fulfilling that promise.
Your thesis should be between one and three sentences long and is placed at the end of your introduction. Just because the thesis comes towards the beginning of your paper does not mean you can write it first and then forget about it. View your thesis as a work in progress while you write your paper. Once you are satisfied with the overall argument your paper makes, go back to your thesis and see if it captures what you have argued. If it does not, then revise it. Crafting a good thesis is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, so do not expect to perfect it on the first few tries. Successful writers revise their thesis statements again and again.
A successful thesis statement:
- makes an historical argument
- takes a position that requires defending
- is historically specific
- is focused and precise
- answers the question, "so what?"
How to write a thesis statement:
Suppose you are taking an early American history class and your professor has distributed the following essay prompt:
"Historians have debated the American Revolution's effect on women. Some argue that the Revolution had a positive effect because it increased women's authority in the family. Others argue that it had a negative effect because it excluded women from politics. Still others argue that the Revolution changed very little for women, as they remained ensconced in the home. Write a paper in which you pose your own answer to the question of whether the American Revolution had a positive, negative, or limited effect on women."
Using this prompt, we will look at both weak and strong thesis statements to see how successful thesis statements work.
1. A successful thesis statement makes an historical argument. It does not announce the topic of your paper or simply restate the paper prompt.
Weak Thesis: The Revolution had little effect on women because they remained ensconced in the home.
While this thesis does take a position, it is problematic because it simply restates the prompt. It needs to be more specific about how the Revolution had a limited effect on women and why it mattered that women remained in the home.
Revised Thesis: The Revolution wrought little political change in the lives of women because they did not gain the right to vote or run for office. Instead, women remained firmly in the home, just as they had before the war, making their day-to-day lives look much the same.
This revision is an improvement over the first attempt because it states what standards the writer is using to measure change (the right to vote and run for office) and it shows why women remaining in the home serves as evidence of limited change (because their day-to-day lives looked the same before and after the war). However, it still relies too heavily on the information given in the prompt, simply saying that women remained in the home. It needs to make an argument about some element of the war's limited effect on women. This thesis requires further revision.
Strong Thesis: While the Revolution presented women unprecedented opportunities to participate in protest movements and manage their family's farms and businesses, it ultimately did not offer lasting political change, excluding women from the right to vote and serve in office.
This is a stronger thesis because it complicates the information in the prompt. The writer admits that the Revolution gave women important new opportunities, but argues that, in the end, it led to no substantial change. This thesis recognizes the complexity of the issue, conceding that the Revolution had both positive and negative effects for women, but that the latter outweighed the former. Remember that it will take several rounds of revision to craft a strong thesis, so keep revising until your thesis articulates a thoughtful and compelling argument.
2. A succesful thesis statement takes a position that requires defending. Your argument should not be an obvious or irrefutable assertion. Rather, make a claim that requires supporting evidence.
Weak Thesis: The Revolutionary War caused great upheaval in the lives of American women.
Few would argue with the idea that war brings upheaval. Your thesis needs to be debatable: it needs to make a claim against which someone could argue. Your job throughout the paper is to provide evidence in support of your own case. Here is a revised version:
Strong Thesis: The Revolution caused particular upheaval in the lives of women. With men away at war, women took on full responsibility for running households, farms, and businesses. As a result of their increased involvement during the war, many women were reluctant to give up their new-found responsibilities after the fighting ended.
This is a stronger thesis because it says exactly what kind of upheaval the war wrought, and it makes a debatable claim. For example, a counterargument might be that most women were eager to return to the way life was before the war and thus did not try to usurp men's role on the home front. Or, someone could argue that women were already active in running households, farms, and businesses before the war, and thus the war did not mark a significant departure. Any compelling thesis will have counterarguments. Writers try to show that their arguments are stronger than the counterarguments that could be leveled against them.
3. A successful thesis statement is historically specific. It does not make a broad claim about "American society" or "humankind," but is grounded in a particular historical moment.
Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the prevailing problem of sexism.
Sexism is a vague word that can mean different things in different times and places. In order to answer the question and make a compelling argument, this thesis needs to explain exactly what attitudes toward women were in early America, and how those attitudes negatively affected women in the Revolutionary period.
Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the belief that women lacked the rational faculties of men. In a nation that was to be guided by reasonable republican citizens, women were imagined to have no place in politics and were thus firmly relegated to the home.
This thesis is stronger because it narrows in on one particular and historically specific attitude towards women: the assumption that women had less ability to reason than men. While such attitudes toward women have a long history, this thesis must locate it in a very specific historical moment, to show exactly how it worked in revolutionary America.
4. A successful thesis statement is focused and precise. You need to be able to support it within the bounds of your paper.
Weak Thesis: The Revolution led to social, political, and economic change for women.
This thesis addresses too large of a topic for an undergraduate paper. The terms "social," "political," and "economic" are too broad and vague for the writer to analyze them thoroughly in a limited number of pages. The thesis might focus on one of those concepts, or it might narrow the emphasis to some specific features of social, political, and economic change.
Strong Thesis: The Revolution paved the way for important political changes for women. As "Republican Mothers," women contributed to the polity by raising future citizens and nurturing virtuous husbands. Consequently, women played a far more important role in the new nation's politics than they had under British rule.
This thesis is stronger because it is more narrow, and thus allows the writer to offer more in-depth analysis. It states what kind of change women expected (political), how they experienced that change (through Republican Motherhood), and what the effects were (indirect access to the polity of the new nation).
5. A successful thesis statement answers the question, "so what?" It explains to your reader why your argument is historically significant. It is not a list of ideas you will cover in your paper; it explains why your ideas matter.
Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a positive effect on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity.
This thesis is off to a strong start, but it needs to go one step further by telling the reader why changes in these three areas mattered. How did the lives of women improve because of developments in education, law, and economics? What were women able to do with these advantages? Obviously the rest of the paper will answer these questions, but the thesis statement needs to give some indication of why these particular changes mattered.
Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a positive impact on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity. Progress in these three areas gave women the tools they needed to carve out lives beyond the home, laying the foundation for the cohesive feminist movement that would emerge in the mid-nineteenth century.
This is a stronger thesis because it goes beyond offering a list of changes for women, suggesting why improvements in education, the law, and economics mattered. It outlines the historical significance of these changes: they helped women build a cohesive feminist movement in the nineteenth century.
When revising your thesis, check it against the following guidelines:
1. Does my thesis make an historical argument?
2. Does my thesis take a position that requires defending?
3. Is my thesis historically specific?
4. Is my thesis focused and precise?
5. Does my thesis answer the question, "so what?"
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