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IDS 403 1-5 Sources That Historians Use

Overview: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a historical event, usually written at the time the event occurred, by somebody who was somehow involved in the event.

Secondary sources are second-hand accounts of a historical event, usually (but not necessarily) written after the event occurred, by somebody who was not involved in the event. The secondary source uses collections of primary sources to build an interpretation of the event.

Tertiary sources are historical accounts that usually summarize existing secondary sources, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and websites such as history.com, ushistory.org, and heritage.org. These sources are not authoritative sources, because there is little or no peer review process and because the authors of tertiary sources usually engage in no primary-source research. Historians may look to websites such as Wikipedia to check facts like names or dates, but they do not rely on them for scholarly historical interpretations. While you will not be analyzing tertiary sources in this course, it is helpful for you to know what they are.


Perspectives: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources


Take a look at some primary, secondary, and tertiary sources related to making the decision to drop the atomic bomb over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

First, skim this letter written by Harry S. Truman, who was the President of the United States during the time the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb. This is a primary source. Even though this letter was written in 1953, years after the historical event, it is a primary source because Truman was a participant in making the decision to drop the bomb, and the letter contains Truman’s first-hand recollections of making the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

Second, skim this scholarly article about the decision to drop the atomic bomb. This is a secondary source because it is written by Louis Morton, a historian who was not involved with making the decision to use the atomic bomb. This secondary source uses records from Congressional hearings, books, memoirs, and articles published by first-hand participants as well as memoranda and letters written by members of the military and Truman administration involved in making the decision to drop the bomb.

Finally, skim this webpage about making the decision to drop the atomic bomb. It is a tertiary source because it summarizes existing secondary sources without doing original primary-source research and has not been peer-reviewed.

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