Secondary Source


Based on the Wikipedia article "Secondary Source". Much of this is of direct interest and relevance for the genealogist, though the article was not written with them explicitly in mind. This article is being modified to better reflect usage of this term in genealogical research.


In library and information science, historiography and other areas of scholarship, a secondary source[1][2] is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a Primary Source, which is an "original" source for the information being discussed. Secondary sources involve extraction, generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. Primary and secondary are relative terms, and some sources may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used.[3] See also tertiary source


Source classification

Many sources can be considered either primary and secondary, depending on the context in which they are used.[4] Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual,[5] so that precise definitions are difficult to make.[6] For example, if a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion, but a secondary source of information found in the old documents. Other examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary[7] or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic.[8]

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field.[9] For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source, but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary".[10]

Other languages, like German, call the secondary sources Sekundärliteratur, leaving Sekundärquelle to historiography. A Sekundärquelle is a source that can tell about a (lost) Primärquelle, e.g. a letter is quoting from minutes that no longer exist and can not be consulted by the historian.

Typical secondary sources in various fields

Historiography and historical scholarship

The delineation of sources as primary sources and secondary first arose in the field of historiography, as historians attempted to identify and classify the sources of historical writing. In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources.[11] In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."[12] Many scholars have commented on the difficulty in producing secondary source narratives from the "raw data" which makes up the past. Historian/philosopher Hayden White has written extensively on the ways in which the rhetorical strategies by which historians construct narratives about the past, and what sorts of assumptions about time, history, and events are embedded in the very structure of the historical narrative. In any case, the question of the exact relation between "historical facts" and the content of "written history" has been a topic of discussion among historians since at least the nineteenth century, when much of the modern profession of history came into being.{

As a general rule, modern historians prefer to go back to primary sources, if available, as well as seeking new ones, because primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions, and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. On the other hand, most undergraduate research projects are limited to secondary source material.

Library and information science

In library and information sciences, secondary sources are generally regarded as those sources that summarize or add commentary to primary sources in the context of the particular information or idea under study.[13][14]

Secondary sources in family history

"A secondary source is a record or statement of an event or circumstance made by a non-eyewitness or by someone not closely connected with the event or circumstances, recorded or stated verbally either at or sometime after the event, or by an eye-witness at a time after the event when the fallibility of memory is an important factor."[15] Consequently, an autobiography written after the event is a secondary source, even though it may be the first published description of an event. For example, many first hand accounts of events in the 1st world war that were written in the post war years were influenced by the then prevailing perception of the war which was significantly different from contemporary opinion.[16]

Secondary legal sources

In the legal field, source classification is important because the persuasiveness of a source usually depends upon its history. Primary sources may include cases, constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and other sources of binding legal authority, while secondary legal sources may include books, articles, and encyclopedias.[17] Legal writers usually prefer to cite primary sources because only primary sources are authoritative and precedential, while secondary sources are only persuasive at best.[18]

Secondary sources of scientific and mathematical ideas and data

Source classification is a useful tool for tracing the history of scientific and mathematical ideas, including who is credited as the primary source of the idea and how it has been propagated. A review article is an example of such a secondary source, and some scientific journals only publish review articles.

One important use of secondary sources in the field of mathematics has been to make difficult mathematical ideas and proofs from primary sources more accessible to the public.[19]

See also


  • Jules R. Benjamin. A Student's Guide to History (2003)
  • Edward H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).
  • Wood Gray, Historian's handbook, a key to the study and writing of history (Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
  • Derek Harland, A Basic Course in Genealogy: Volume two, Research Procedure and Evaluation of Evidence, (Bookcraft Inc, 1958)
  • Richard Holmes. Tommy (HarperCollins, 2004)
  • Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (2001)
  • Richard A. Marius and Melvin E. Page. A Short Guide to Writing About History (5th Edition) (2004)
  • Hayden White, Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

Further reading