Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is one that was written/spoken/drawn significantly after the historical event it describes. It is usually the product of someone who was not directly involved in the event or someone who was not an eyewitness to the event.

Advantages of secondary sources include:

  • Because they were created some time after the event they are describing, they can reflect the “full picture” – they know how the event finally concluded and the impact it had. They have the advantage of hindsight (the ability to look back at an event some time after it has occurred, which makes it easier to understand the reasons why it took place, its significance and the impact that it had)
  • Many secondary sources have been produced by historians and academics. They are often the product of extensive research, including the use of primary sources.
  • If the author was not directly involved in the event, there is less potential for bias.

Disadvantages of secondary sources include:

  • The source gives us only the opinions of the person who created it; other people may have totally different interpretations.
  • Secondary sources include biographies written years later by people who were directly involved in a particular event. This raises questions of reliability – the author’s memory may not always be accurate; the author might want to exaggerate or downplay his or her role in an event.
  • Secondary sources include accounts by eyewitnesses written years after the event. This also raises issues of reliability- was the author really an eyewitness? How accurate is the author’s memory?

Secondary Source Analysis

Author Who created the source? What are the author’s credentials? An author who takes responsibility for the content of the source is more likely to provide accurate information than one who remains anonymous. Look for an author with the education (e.g., a Ph.D. in history), background (e.g., public service), or practical experience (e.g., employment as an economist) in the subject matter to provide expert knowledge.
Publisher Who hosted or published the source? Does the publisher claim responsibility for the source? A well-known publisher (e.g., or one that corresponds well with the subject matter (e.g., for matters related to the environment) will provide the most reliable information. If the publisher claims responsibility for the site, as well as the author, there is a high level of accountability.
Domain Name What are the implications of the domain name? Web sites with educational (.edu), government (.gov), or nonprofit (.org or .net) domain names are more appropriate than commercial (.com) or personal ( or domain names. Personal web sites can be, but are not necessarily, less reliable than those affiliated with an organization. If it’s a personal web site, be sure to investigate the author carefully.
Reference Works Is the source part of a reference work (i.e., Wikipedia,, or other encyclopedias or dictionaries)? Although these reference works are a good starting point and provide a general overview of a topic, they are not considered scholarly enough for historical research.
Currency When was the source created or the site updated? It’s important to have the latest research on a subject. If the site has not been updated for a long time, the information may be obsolete or the author may have lost interest in the subject.
Audience What is the target audience? Sources intended for a professional or college-level audience are more likely to be scholarly and insightful than those intended for younger audiences or the general public.
Reliability How reliable or accurate is the source? If the author has the proper credentials, provides references to support his or her statements, and links to other sources that address the same subject, the source is likely to be based on solid research and will be more reliable than one that does not include these features
Credibility How feasible are facts and interpretations? You should be able to verify facts and standard interpretations in your textbook or other readily available resources. If the interpretation challenges a standard interpretation, the author should provide primary source supporting evidence and references
Objectivity Are facts and opinions clearly identified? Statements of fact can be proved, demonstrated, observed, or verified (either by witnesses or by other sources). Opinions are not necessarily verifiable. Nevertheless, if they are based upon logic, research, or experience, they can be very valuable. It’s up to the author to distinguish between the two so that the reader can balance the account with other points of view. Opinions should be flagged with statements like “It seems logical…,” “The limited research available suggests…,” “Judging from my experience…,” etc.

Documentation Are the primary sources the author used complete or edited? Are sources well documented? Are there references to other resources on the topic? If the primary source is an excerpt or edited in any way, it should be clearly spelled out so that the reader has the option of seeking the original. A well-documented source is an indication of scholarly research work and is more likely to be accurate than one that does not have references or links.
Reputation How credible is the source? What do others say about it? There are a number of ways you can obtain this information:

§  What other web sites link to this site? Find out by doing a link: search in Google. Type “link:” followed immediately by the URL. If there are no links, the site is not necessarily poor. Others just may not have discovered it yet. However, if there are links from other reputable sites, it means that the site has earned a good reputation.

§  Is the site reviewed? Look for reviews at the Merlot Project, Scout Report, or Best of History Web Sites. Since only a small number of sites available on the Internet are reviewed, a site that receives a positive review is likely to be excellent.
§  What can you learn about the author? Do a Google search to obtain biographical information, reviews, and comments. Check to see if the author is listed at Amazon and obtain a bibliography of published works.


Attention to Detail Are there spelling or grammatical errors? If the source offers references to other resources, are they working and reliable? Errors in these areas are an indication of carelessness and suggest that the content of the site may be suspect.