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

What is the difference between these two types of sources? What is the role that they play in the study of history?



We will use this WebQuest to explore what are primary and secondary sources and the role that each plays in historical research.


Use this WebQuest to determine

  1. What the difference is between primary and secondary sources
  2. Practice using sources to draw historical conclusions.

First, create a Word/Google/Text document and title it Primary v. Secondary Sources

Next go to the MCC Library's US History LibGuide covering Primary v. Secondary Sources. Click through the short slide show to get a basic idea of what primary and secondary sources are.

  • On your document, write a short definition of
    • Primary Source
    • Secondary Source
  • And answer the following three questions
    • What is the basic difference between the two?
    • Why do historians use Primary Sources?
    • Why do they use Secondary Sources?



Once you have the definition firmly fixed in your mind, let's dig a little deeper.

  1. Go to this article on Primary and Secondary Sources.
  2. As you read consider especially, when and why we use both primary and secondary sources, and how you can tell if your source is acting as a primary or secondary source.


  • Think about your answers to the questions from before.
    • Did your ideas match what this article says?



Let's practice! Look at the images below of a Mayan vase dating from between 600 and 900 CE.

Use the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool to record your observations. Use the numbered figures on the second image to structure your observations.

For each section, Observe, Reflect, and Question use the question mark icon tip_user_input_furtherinvestigation to see prompts that will help you analyze the artifact. (Don't worry about filling in the Further Investigation section)

Vase with Eleven FiguresVase with Eleven Figures




Once you have finished, save your observations by clicking "Download" at the bottom of the form and "Download" again on the following page. Upload the Primary Source Analysis Tool document and your Primary v. Secondary Sources document created at the beginning of this lesson to the assignment page on Brightspace.



Once you have submitted check out the Translations of the figures presented by the Library scholars.


Post to the Discussion Board 

  1. What were your observations on the vase and how did they compare to the Translations from the Library?
  2. What do you think are some limitations (handicaps) for how we looked at this source and how that affected your observations and conclusions?
  3. Post thoughtful responses to at least two(2) of your classmates.

Evaluation Rubric

Item N/A Developing Good   Exemplary Score
Primary/Secondary Sources Google/Word/Text Document Not Attempted Student writes minimal responses to lesson questions, or does not respond to 1 or more questions. Student responds to all questions, but responses are minimal and do not show that the student has considered the information given. Student writes comprehensive response to all questions demonstrating careful consideration of the information presented. up to 10 points
Analysis Tool - Observations Not attempted Student writes 1-2 observations Student writes 3-5 observations Student writes 5+ observations

up to 20 points

Analysis Tool - Reflections Not attempted Student responds to 1-2 reflection prompts Student responds to 3-5 reflection prompts Student responds to 5+ reflection prompts up to 20 points
Analysis Tool - Questions Not attempted Student records 1 question Student records 2 questions Student records 3+ questions

up to 20 points

Student posts initial Discussion Not attempted Student covers some of the required points in their discussion, demonstrating minimal critical thinking. Student covers most of the required points in their discussion, demonstrating adequate critical thinking. Student covers all required points in their discussion, demonstrating exceptional critical thinking. up to 20 points
Student replies to classmates Not attempted Student responds to only one(1) classmate, and/or responds with "I agree" or similar that adds little to the overall substance of the discussion Student responds to only one classmate, but responds with adequate consideration of their classmate's points and seeks to make a substantial contribution to the discussion. Student responds to two(2) or more classmates with adequate consideration of their classmates' points and seeks to make a substantial contribution to the discussion. up to 10 points




Primary Source is a document or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied, often by the people being studied. Accurate history is based on primary sources. These can include:

  • Letters
  • Diaries/Journals
  • Autobiographies or Memoirs
  • Speeches
  • Manuscripts
  • Interviews
  • Photographs
  • Artifacts
  • Audio or Video Recordings
  • Newspaper or Magazine articles (written soon after the event occurred)

Secondary Source is an account of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers that describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources. These can include:

  • Books
  • Journal Articles
  • Literary Criticism
  • Documentaries
  • Synopses or Descriptions
  • Encyclopedias
  • Textbooks
  • any material at least one step removed from an event 

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources. Remember when considering a source, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this source come from someone directly involved in the events I’m studying (primary) or from another researcher (secondary)?
  • Am I interested in analyzing the source itself (primary) or only using it for background information (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary) or does it comment upon information from other sources (secondary)?

And finally, remember that both primary and secondary sources are important and each plays a vital role in writing good historical research.