National History Day Resources

  • Primary Sources

    A primary source is ...

    • An original document or item created at the time of an event or shortly thereafter.
    • A written text, an image, an artifact, or even a building!
    • Written or created by people who were participants or observers during an event.
    • Not modified or interpreted by a second person or agency.

    Primary sources for a biography of you might be:

    • Your birth certificate, report cards, diaries, and letters
    • Photographs of you at different times in your life, and with various people
    • A printed copy, video, or sound recording of a speech you made
    • A copy of a patent you received for your famous invention

    For a historical event or movement, your sources might be:

    • Diaries, memoirs, letters, or autobiographies of people involved in the movement
    • Newspaper or magazine articles and editorials are written at the time of an event
    • Speeches and writings of people involved, either for or against the movement
    • Bills proposed and laws passed by Congress
    • Propaganda posters, flyers, official publications of the organizations involved
    • Photographs, videos, or audio recordings of actual events
    • Public opinion surveys measuring people’s attitudes to the event or movement
    • Artifacts – actual objects from the time period 

    secondary source is ...

    • A book, document, or item based on primary sources.
    • Information collected and interpreted by a second person or agency.


    • Dictionaries
    • Encyclopedias
    • Articles that review other sources
    • Textbooks
    • Biographies

    Secondary sources for the story of your life would be:

    • A biography of you for which the author has read all your personal papers.
    • A study of all your great inventions for which the author has read all your patents and technical articles.

    A tertiary source is ...

    • A book, document, or item based on secondary sources.
    • Information collected and re-interpreted by a third person or agency.

    Tertiary sources for the story of your life would be:

    • An encyclopedia article based on the biography and the study of your inventions.
    • A popular biography or biography for children based on the secondary sources.

     Ask these basic questions about every source, no matter how obvious the answer might seem:

    –Who wrote this?

    –What does it say?

    –When was it written?

    –Where was it written?

    –Why was it written?

    Primary and secondary sources may have a slant or bias.

    You need to look at both primary and secondary sources critically to see if they are promoting a particular point of view or showing both sides of an issue. Bias can also show up by what is left out, as much as by what is left in.

    Primary example: John Adams Personal Papers -- In his personal letters to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams viewed his role in the creation of the Declaration of Independence as central. But, Thomas Jefferson, as the primary author of the document, gets much of the credit in history textbooks.

    Secondary example: History Textbooks -- A history textbook is a secondary source. Because there is so much history to cover, much of what is discussed shows the positives and not the negatives.  The author of Lies My Teacher Told Me provides less flattering, although factual, portraits of some individuals who have played significant roles in the history of the United States.