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Step One: From Topic to Source Ideas

You'll often hear about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. The first thing to know is that you can't tell whether a source is one or another without putting it in the context of your research question.

Obviously, what sources you'll use will depend on what question you're answering. The role of the sources might also differ. So to start, think about what you're really asking.

For each of the next three sections, we'll consider two example historical questions:

  • What did new Norwegian and German immigrants think about the Dakota Territory?
  • What drove African American migration within the United States from 1890-1920?

These two questions, on related subjects and both historical, can think of sources very differently, as we'll see!

Primary Sources

Primary sources are produced by the historical participants, or people observing them at the time. They can be many things, not just written documents; they can be oral histories, historical artifacts, and art. 

For our first question--about Northern European immigrants' impression of the Dakotas, these might include:

  • Dairies and letters from the immigrants
  • Immigrant newspapers
  • Folk art
  • Music
  • Changes in the language
  • Observations from other people living in, or passing through, the Dakotas

One of the ways historians are creative is by thinking of new sources.

For studying African American migration, we could use different sources:

  • Demographic data (where did African Americans move from, and to?)
  • Economic data
  • Black newspapers
  • Letters and diaries
  • Oral histories (interviews done later in life)

Secondary Sources

If you're using primary sources to write a paper, or a book, you're creating a secondary source. Secondary sources are built up from primary sources.

Most history books and articles (and class papers) use both primary and secondary sources--they cite secondary sources to compare and contrast their own work ("So-and-so says this, but I say..." or "So and so had this great idea, and I want to apply it here..."), or to give background information to something the primary sources, which hit at the real subject, don't cover.

You'll use secondary sources like this, and to explain why you're using your primary sources the way you are.

For the immigrant experience project, you'll probably look for secondary sources like:

  • Bulman and Lillestrand, The John Hanson Heritage, Something More : The History of Norwegian Immigrant Families that Came to Iowa (sure, it's Iowa, but you'll be interested in the similarities and differences)
  • Svendsbye, I Paid All my Debts: A Norwegian-American Immigrant Saga of Life on the Prairie of North Dakota (obviously)

For the other topic, for background and scholarly responses you might be interested in:

  • Reed, Knock at the Door of Opportunity: Black Migration to Chicago, 1900-1919 (what drove movement to big cities?)
  • Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (what was going in in the south during this period?)

Again: In secondary sources the thesis question is answered with primary sources, although they use other sources to support their argument.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources do not build up from primary sources, but from secondary (and other tertiary) sources.

Essentially, they summarize research that has already been done, without using it to necessarily answer a new question.

The usual examples are textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. Wikipedia even forbids primary source research, so it can only be a tertiary source.

However: If what you're studying are dictionaries or Wikipedia themselves, they suddenly become primary sources!  What ultimately matters is what was produced by the subject of your study.