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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 498D: The Racial Dimensions of Medicine and Public Health

What are Primary Sources?

For historians, primary sources are sources that are produced at the time of the event or phenomenon you are investigating. They purport to document it. They reflect what someone observed or believed about an event at the time it occurred or soon afterwards. These sources provide raw material that you will analyze and interpret. Primary sources can be published or unpublished. You can find primary sources using almost of the resources and search strategies described in this guide.

Learn more about primary sources in the field of History:

What are Secondary Sources?

In the field of history, secondary sources are the scholarly "conversation" taking place about the past. This "conversation" is sometimes referred to as "scholarly communication."

Published secondary sources can include scholarly books, articles, and essays (both analyses by contemporary scholars as well as older scholarly analyses), surveys, criticism, comparative studies, reference sources, and works on theory and methodology.

To find published secondary sources, you can use the Library Catalog to find books or use article indexes/databases to find journal articles; article databases may list books and book chapters as well. You can also consult bibliographies.

Other ways of finding relevant secondary sources include looking for review essays, in which a historian who specializes in the subject analyzes recent scholarship and looking for historiographical treatments of the topic published as chapters in collections, journal articles, or even monographs.

Learn more about scholarly communication (AKA secondary sources), including the role of less formal modes of communication such as social media:

Primary vs Secondary Sources in Science/Medicine

Scientists and medical researchers may draw a slightly different kind of distinction between primary and secondary sources. In the STEM disciplines, primary sources communicate the results of original research studies, experiments, or trials. Secondary sources can be a variety of types of publications, but they are always analyses or interpretations of that original research.


How do the authors of these books distinguish between primary and secondary sources (if they do)? What kinds of primary sources do they use?