A primary source is usually defined as a documentary or written document from which information about a specific subject is derived. In the study of ancient history as a field of study, a primary source can be a written account, document, memoir, documentary recording, or oral history of the subject. It often serves as an independent source of data concerning the subject concerned.
One of the challenges for historians, educators, and anyone else studying ancient history is determining what is a primary source. Secondary sources are any material that can be used to support a point of view without relying on the primary sources for the same point of view. Because most secondary sources rely on what is a primary source, it is important to understand what is a primary source and what is a secondary source for a particular period or event.
There are many types of primary sources. Primary sources include primary texts, diaries, and oral history. Texts are primary sources because they are usually the only copy or record of the historical event. Diaries and oral histories most often reflect what was said at a particular time but may also be written accounts of events directly involved in the event.
The problem with relying on what is a primary source, such as a diarist, is two-fold. First, in order to use such a record, one must always know what the exact words were in the primary documentation. Second, even when a person knows what was recorded, he or she may not always know what was written in a specific diary or journal. Thus, it is up to the chronicler or reporter to make sure that what is a primary source accurately reflects the facts recorded.
Some of the most common sources for historians and journalists are newspapers. Most newspapers are internally controlled and edited, so what is a primary article from a newspaper may not necessarily reflect what is true or accurate in a secondary source, such as a blog post. In fact, what is a primary article from a newspaper may not be what is true or accurate according to a blog post. A blogger’s responsibility is to provide as much information as possible in the most accurate manner possible, while maintaining consistency. For example, while every blogger needs to keep up to date with the latest developments and political hotspots, newspapers should take pains to describe what is generally accepted as the facts of a historical event.
The same can be said for other types of oral and/or written history. Speeches and writings by government leaders and famous individuals are generally considered primary sources, though these are not always so. Official correspondences are often primary sources because they are historically accurate and because no one is trying to pass anything off as an official speech or document. Official documents, like birth certificates and other records, may be secondary sources because they were officially recorded or created as an official record, especially if they came from the government.
The Internet and technological advancements in the last few years have opened up new and different possibilities when it comes to what is a primary source. Blogs and social media posts are a great example of what is a secondary source because they aren’t necessarily rooted in a historical event, but they are usually authored by someone who is not directly involved in the main subject. This makes them nearly impossible to verify as primary sources, though they still could be helpful in providing a general overview. Podcasts and streaming audio are also prime examples of what is a secondary source. These are generally not meant to document a specific history or event, but they can still be used as a source of what is a primary source for many people.
How does one distinguish what is a primary source from what is a secondary source? Well, there are some commonalities. If a blog discusses a certain topic but it isn’t rooted in any primary source (e.g., “He was a vegetarian in college”), it is considered a secondary source. However, if the blog discusses a specific historical event and is written primarily in the first person, it is considered a primary source because it is derived from a primary source. In other words, secondary sources don’t have to have anything to do with the subject of the primary article. So if you are wondering what is a primary source, you’ll know the answer after the fact!