Publication Date

August 16, 2021

Perspectives Section


Like most historians who teach first-year courses, I confront the challenge of explaining the difference between primary and secondary sources. It’s a slippery beast for a simple distinction so central to historical practice. Is that down to my limitations as a teacher, I’ve wondered while watching students struggle, or does the distinction’s apparent simplicity belie the complexities baked into it? Surely some of the former is to blame, but I’m convinced that the difficulty owes much to the latter. Once students absorb the primary–secondary distinction, it tends to fade into the background of classroom discussions. Perhaps, though, we might better serve students by dragging its nettlesome complexities into the light earlier in their education, as well as more often.

Students are better served by faculty bringing the complexities of the primary source–secondary source distinction into the light earlier in their education, as well as more often.

Students are better served by faculty bringing the complexities of the primary source–secondary source distinction into the light earlier in their education, as well as more often.Ying Ge/Unsplash

Good historical methods textbooks complicate the distinction thoroughly and usefully. John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History, for instance, gives the example of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England (1848), which could be used as a foundational secondary source or a primary window into Victorian political and intellectual life. When I first started teaching historical methods, I took to heart the lesson that sources could sometimes be both primary and secondary; I now believe that such qualifications don’t go far enough.

This is partly because beginning history students can be easily misled by historians’ offhand way of talking as though the primary–secondary distinction differentiates types of sources. But it doesn’t really. When we classify sources, we are more properly identifying, or trying to identify, the different ways sources relate to arguments. Broadly speaking, secondary sources motivate and situate arguments, whereas primary sources evidence and illustrate argument—but, crucially, neither has a monopoly on any of these roles. When students struggle with the distinction, it’s often because they’re tempted—despite Tosh’s caution that some sources can be both—to see “primary” and “secondary” as intrinsic properties of sources, because they’re still finding their grip on the mechanics of historical arguments and still learning to think through how sources relate to them.

I’ve adjusted my teaching by rethinking how I introduce the identification, evaluation, and classification of sources. Students typically have a rough-and-ready sense of how to sort primary from secondary sources. A small-group brainstorming session can fill the blackboard with two impressively comprehensive lists. But it will also highlight areas of overlap—newspaper articles, oral history interviews, textbooks. Sources that we can list in both columns on the board create an opportunity to point out that we can’t meaningfully classify any source until we know what our question is and how we want to approach it.

Once I’ve primed students in this way, I suggest that we ask a question more useful than “Is this a primary or secondary source?” We can ask how a source relates to a historical argument. To drive home this point, and to offer practice engaging critically with the sources other historians use, I ask students to comb through a short journal article and identify what kind of work each cited source is doing. I suggest they look for sources falling into four general categories:

Motivational Sources

When making historical arguments, we need to explain why it’s necessary to make them; we need to answer the “So what?” question. One common strategy is historiographical. Historians review other scholars’ stances on similar topics or themes and suggest that the material they have unearthed can benefit those discussions—for instance, through an expansion, a qualification, a confirmation, or a counterexample. But they might also latch on to an issue of contemporary political or cultural interest, or appeal to matters of timeless importance. They might identify an oddity that, on its face, demands an explanation. Think of a current newspaper headline that resonates with past events, or a historical diary entry that reveals a remarkable attitude. Each of these strategies calls for different types of sources but uses them similarly to motivate an argument.

When we classify sources, we are more properly identifying, or trying to identify, the different ways sources relate to arguments.

Situational Sources

If motivational sources answer the “So what?” question, situational sources answer the “What’s new?” question. Historians must convince readers that their work meaningfully expands historical understanding. To do so, they often reference larger historiographical discussions or broader historical contexts. They establish the connections between our topics—and our claims about them—and the wider historical and historiographical currents that we expect our readers to be familiar with, suggesting how the study at hand might illuminate them. Historians propose that their insights might apply to other national contexts or eras or that they could be pertinent to other theoretical framings. Situational goals might overlap with motivational goals, but distinguishing the two helps students tease apart the immediate interpretive stakes of an argument from its looser connections to related but distinct discussions.

Evidential Sources

Some sources support historical arguments directly. They provide evidence that historians’ claims about the past are accurate—the government document that records policy decisions, the letter that reveals the character of a personal relationship, the artifact whose features indicate how it was used. This seems obvious, but making it explicit sets up productive questions about the nature of historical evidence. Does the source provide the kind of support the author claims it does? Is it strong evidence? Is it the only evidence, or does it represent a set of examples that might be invoked in its place? These are all questions we would like students to consider eventually, but introducing them in the context of the range of roles sources play helps students learn to ask those questions of the right sources.

This approach focuses student attention on the source–argument relationship in a way that better scaffolds the basic skills of historical practice.

Illustrative Sources

Historians reserve some sources for when they are confident that they have otherwise established an argument. These sources have rhetorical value but might be too flimsy to bear evidential weight on their own. Against the background of a well-argued case, however, they can snap that case into focus. Such sources often appear in epigraphs or brief opening or concluding vignettes—perhaps a pithy quote from an oral history interview or a short, self-contained story cobbled together from archival materials. These might contribute to describing the wider historical context in which readers should understand the central story. They often do not bolster the argument on their own (although might play a small role), but they do focus readers’ attention and make them more receptive to the sources that do the heavy lifting.

When my students complete this assignment, they often find sources straddling boundaries or evading classification. I emphasize that this is not a fixed system of categories but merely one pragmatic way of classifying sources. The discussions sparked by this approach have been invaluable, principally because these categories correspond to tasks that good historical argumentation should accomplish: it should explain why the argument matters, describe its contribution to our understanding, establish its plausibility, and drive home its message. Students probing whether a source does one or another of those things are learning how to read critically—to diagnose when an author is situating without motivating, or illustrating without evidencing, and to ward off such vices in their own writing. Deemphasizing the staid and not altogether coherent primary–secondary distinction focuses student attention on the source–argument relationship in a way that better scaffolds the basic skills of historical practice.

If my students’ questions are any indication, this approach works. When I focused on driving home the primary–secondary distinction, students embarking on independent projects would often ask whether one source or another was an appropriate primary or secondary source, or wonder how many of each type of source they should cite. They understood the distinction but had trouble using it to unsnarl the tangle of sources they encountered in the wild. When we discuss sources in terms of their relationship to arguments, however, students tend to ask questions I can answer more constructively: Is this source good evidence for this claim? What range of sources should I discuss to give a good historiographical motivation? These questions offer a better basis for constructing a successful historical argument.

We shouldn’t eliminate the primary–secondary distinction entirely. Despite its limitations, it is deeply entrenched, and it is useful as a rough differentiator. But I would advocate dislodging that crude binary from its privileged place in history pedagogy. Presenting it as just one possible way to classify our sources can encourage students to ask more-productive questions.

The standards of historical argumentation were a black box to me when I was a beginning history student. I’d heap claims atop sources and adjust my expectations based on what seemed to please my professors, developing my instincts through laborious trial, error, and feedback. My students exhibit those same uncertainties when they ask, “How many primary sources do I need?” The strategy presented here can’t erase that uncertainty. It can’t confer the feel for sources that comes only with experience. But reframing our discussions of sources in terms of their role in building arguments can change that question into something like “How can I tell when my sources are good enough?” If this strategy accomplishes that, then it has done useful work toward initiating students into the historian’s craft.

Joseph D. Martin is associate professor of history of science and technology at Durham University.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.