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First-year Seminar: Contemporary Civil Rights Movements in the United States

This is a guide for the first-year seminar about contemporary civil rights movements.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents, artifacts and other records. They are the evidence closest to an event that helps us understand what was happening at that time.

  • For example: A diary is a primary source. It is a firsthand account of what one person saw and experienced. 
  • On this research guide, look for many different types of primary sources, like Diaries and Letters, on the tabs to the left.


Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are the stories people who weren't there tell about those events--articles, books, and other documents that interpret, summarize, or critique.  

  • For example: A book written by a historian is a secondary source. Since the historian was not present at the event, the historian uses diaries and other primary sources to piece together the story of how an event unfolded. 
  • On this research guide, look for secondary sources, like Books and Journal Articles, on the tabs to the left under Secondary Sources.


Remember This!

To help you remember, think of a target made of concentric circles.


In the center is the historical event or topic you are studying.

Moving outward, the first ring is where you'd find primary (original) sources. This is as close as you can get to actually being there. Primary sources are firsthand accounts created by eyewitnesses, like diaries. They may also preserve data about an event, like a birth or death certificate.

In the second ring, then, are the stories told by people not present at the event. The historian is the second (or third, fourth, or more!) person to tell the story, and so a book written by a historian is a secondhand or secondary source. In some cases the lines between primary and secondary sources begin to blur. Watch the video below to find out more.

image credit: Author:; Target Flat Icon GIF Animation.gif from Wikimedia Commons; License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0

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