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HIST 220: American Environmental History

David Voelker

Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or piece of evidence written or created during the time period you are studying. A primary source allows you to examine evidence firsthand without being affected by other opinions.

Types of Primary Sources:

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Memos/E-mails
  • Speeches (both the text of the speech & the giving of the speech)
  • Manuscripts
  • Autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Patents
  • Laws, legislation, court rulings
  • Newspaper & magazine articles as an event happened
  • News footage
  • Raw data
  • Artifacts: buildings, clothes, jewelry, toys, fossils
  • Journal articles reporting original research or an experiment
  • Official records of governments, agencies, organizations: meeting minutes, reports, vital records (e.g., Census records)
  • Creative works: poetry, novels, drama, music, art, photography, movies, scripts, performances
  • Technical reports (i.e., accounts of work done on research projects)

Secondary Sources

A secondary source describes or analyzes a primary source. These sources are one step removed from the actual event and allow you to understand what scholars and other experts know about your topic.

Types of Secondary Sources:

  • Books or articles that explain or review research works
  • Histories and critical commentaries
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference materials
  • Newspaper articles, magazine articles, and webpages authored by people who had nothing to do with the actual research
  • Journal article that summarizes the results of other researchers' experiments

Comparing Sources: Primary vs. Secondary

Primary Source Secondary Source
A 1901 passenger list of a ship carrying immigrants into Ellis Island Book analyzing the immigrant experience at Ellis Island
The Pentagon Papers, an official report from the U.S. Dept. of Defense about Vietnam Magazine article examining the impact of the The Pentagon Papers report on Americans' views on U.S. involvement in Vietnam
Nighthawks, a painting by artist Edward Hopper A critique of the painting, Nighthawks, in an art magazine
A New York Times newspaper article of the JFK assassination from the time period, November 1963 The Wikipedia entry for the JFK assassination
State of the Union Address by the President of the United States Newspaper article that critiques the State of the Union Address
Text of the No Child Left Behind Act Magazine article that discusses schools failing to meet obligations of the No Child Left Behind Act
UW Board of Regents Meeting Minutes Blog post that comments on activities of the UW Board of Regents meeting
Journal article on DNA research that explains the methodology and results of an experiment conducted by the researchers A newspaper article that summarizes new DNA research
News footage of the September 11th terrorist attacks Article examining people's reactions to the images of the September 11th terrorist attacks
A letter written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War Book that analyzes Lincoln's writings
The movie, The Wizard of Oz Website examining the symbolism of the movie, The Wizard of Oz
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. - book written by MLK that details his own life King: A Biography - book written by a researcher that examines MLK's life
Brown County, WI wetlands map Book on wetlands preservation
Slave diary from 1831 A book published in 2009 that examines the daily lives of slaves in the American South
A journal article on breast cancer where the researchers explain the methodology and results of their experiment A journal article that provides commentary and reviews several research experiments studying breast cancer