Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Tools for Hands-on History

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Some sources are made by people who were involved in an event or witnessed it first-hand. These are called primary sources. Let’s say your great-great-grandmother came to this country on a steamship long ago. She wrote home to Poland every week. Her letters would tell us what it was like to travel on a steamship and how she felt about moving to a new country. Those letters would be primary sources.

When we read the words of people who lived in the past, we can understand what they went through. Artifacts (people-made things) that they made or used can tell a lot about how they lived and what was important to them. Handed-down quilts, woodworking tools let us know what our ancestors did with their time and what skills they had.

Buildings are huge artifacts that people build to shelter themselves. Both the inside and the outside of buildings tell us a lot about how people in a community lived, worshipped, learned, worked, and played.

A letter from a soldier and a birth certificate are primary sources called documents. Documents are official records, papers, letters, and forms. One important huge document that the United States records every ten years is the Census. All those millions of facts and figures can tell historians how whole communities lived, worked and played.

Drawings, paintings, and photographs are visual sources. Many are primary sources, too, but not all of them.

When you ask your grandfather what games he played when he was growing up, his verbal answer is oral history. Songs that people wrote, sang, and listened to are also oral documents that tell us how they felt and what they believed.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is something written, said, or made by someone who was not directly involved in the event. For example, a book written today about the Johnstown Flood is a secondary source. It is a second-hand account.

Drawings and paintings can be either primary or secondary sources depending on whether or not the artist was an eyewitness. Publications like books, magazines, and newspapers can also be either primary or secondary sources.

For example, Rev. David Beale's book The Johnstown Flood by a Survivor is a primary source because he wrote about his own experience and copied other people's survivor stories in their own words. On the other hand, The Johnstown Horror published in the fall of 1889, was a secondary source that reprinted many wild stories published in the newspapers without anyone checking their accuracy!

We can learn a lot from good secondary sources, too, because they add to the story of the past. Sometimes they include information that was not available at the time of the event. They can help us see more than one person's side of an event. David McCullough gathered together primary sources from many sources and all different points of view when he wrote his book The Johnstown Flood in 1968. Writing almost 100 years after the Flood allowed him to ask difficult questions that would have been hard to ask or answer right after the Flood occurred.

Consider the Source

So, "consider the source!" is a good warning to remember! Not all old sources are primary sources. And secondary sources are not necessarily bad! For written sources, especially, good historians always ask, "Who wrote this?" "Why did they write it?" "How close were they to the event?" and many more questions that help them know how reliable the source is.

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