How to understand historical sources | primary, secondary, & tertiary

If you study or read history long enough, especially at an academic level, you’ll soon come across references to sources, in particular what are referred to as primary, secondary, and tertiary historical sources. This video explains how to understand historical sources and where to find them.

In the list of references below you can find links to more detailed descriptions of these sources, and links to various works explaining how they are used in historical research. You can also go here to find links to freely available sources.

Bailey, Erika. “Library Guides: History: Primary & Secondary Sources.” University of Washington Library, 4 August 2023.

Baril, Kathleen. “LibGuides: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Literature in the Sciences.” Ohio Northern University, 24 June 2022.

Beever, Susie. “‘World’s Most Beautiful’ Fairytale Library in Historic Monastery Inspired Disney.” The Mirror, 20 August 2022.

Brilliant, Mark. “Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in History” (n.d.).

Brügger, Niels. The Archived Web: Doing History in the Digital Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: MIT Press, 2023.

Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. 6th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

Carruthers, Bob. Barbarossa: Hitler Turns East. Eastern Front from Primary Sources. Pen & Sword Military, 2013.

Cleary, Anne. “Subject and Research Guides: Modern History: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources.” Macquarie University Library, 18 December 2023.

Dobson, Miriam, and Benjamin Ziemann. Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History. London & New York: Routledge, 2009.

Donnelly, Mark, and Claire Norton. Doing History. London & New York: Routledge, 2020.

Engle, Michael. “LibGuides: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources: A Quick Guide: Primary Sources.” Cornell University Library, 17 March 2023.

Galgano, Michael J., J. Chris Arndt, and Raymond M. Hyser. Doing History: Research and Writing in the Digital Age. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2008.

———. Doing History: Research and Writing in the Digital Age. 2. ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.

Goldman, Crystal. “LibGuides: MCWP 50 & MCWP 125: Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources.” UC San Diego, 9 February 2024.

Hall, Lucas. “Research Guides: Primary Sources: A Research Guide: Primary vs. Secondary.” UMass Boston Healey Library, 25 October 2023.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2010.

Lynd, Staughton. Doing History from the Bottom Up: On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below. Haymarket Books, 2014.

Meirow, Eden. “How to Find Primary Sources for Your History Essay.” Kibin Blog, 9 February 2016.

Pacion, Kelee. “Research Guides: WRI101 Into the Deep Past: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources.” Princeton University Library, 19 December 2023.

Rhodes, P. J. “Thucydides’ Use of Evidence and Sources.” Pages 50–62 in The Cambridge Companion to Thucydides. Edited by Polly Low. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023.,

Sewell, Clare. “How Do I Know If an Article or Book Is Scholarly? – LibAnswers.” Cambridge LibAnswers, 22 March 2023.

Tidd, Louise Vitellaro, and Charles C. Tidd. Doing History: A Strategic Guide to Document-Based Questions. AIM Higher!/Great Source Education Group, 2002.

Viera, Charles. “Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources vs. Tertiary Sources: What’s the Difference? | AJE.” AJE, 28 December 2023.

“2.1.6 Decide What Sources You Need.” Notre Dame University Australia, 19 February 2020.

“Mercer University Libraries.” Mercer University Libraries, n.d.

“Primary & Secondary Sources.” UCLA History Department, 2019.

“Primary and Secondary Sources.” UNSW Library, 7 January 2024.

“Reading the Middle Ages” (n.d.).

“Selecting Sources: Tertiary, Secondary, Primary | Citizen U Primary Source Nexus.” Primary Source Nexus, 20 November 2014.

“The Long Room | Meeting Spaces at Trinity College Dublin.” Visit Trinity, 2024.

“Using Sources: Creating a Digital Annotated Bibliography | Citizen U Primary Source Nexus.” Primary Source Nexus, 11 December 2014.

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