Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those written about the past from the point of view of a future date. Typically they are produced by authors who have examined a variety of primary sources dating to a previous era or eras while conducting an investigation into an historical topic. Secondary sources generally take the form of monographs (books written by an author or authors on a particular subject), composite works or compendiums written by a series of authors about a subject or subjects, and articles in academic journals. After sifting through a good deal of evidence such as autobiographies, speeches, government records, etc, the authors of secondary sources are then able to draw a series of broader conclusions about particular historical subjects. For example, the individuals involved in a large event, such as a World War, were typically participants in only a small part of the action – but the author of a secondary source can combine the writings or recollections of several dozen participants to form a larger picture of the nature of the conflict. Through such a composite analysis, conclusions might be drawn about the impact of the war on anything from world oil prices to the role of women in wartime production, depending upon the sources consulted and the author’s angle of inquiry.

It should be noted, however, that not all the authors of secondary works on historical subjects are professional historians. Many such works are also produced by journalists, biographers, investigative reporters, and even authors of fiction who have opted to write nonfiction works. The sources produced by these kinds of authors can range in character from broad, general accounts to highly specified or technical investigations. Often they are reflective of a popular approach to the past that readers from many walks of life, young or old, find enjoyable to read. Sometimes these authors have digested the works of professional historians and have proceeded to write an account of the same subject that is more approachable for people with a casual or passing interest. Be aware of the types of secondary sources that you consult. Biographical details about their authors are often available, and they will help you to determine how popular or how scholarly a particular source may be. Virtually anything published by a university press will have gone through a peer-review process – an examination by a series of scholars in similar fields – and will likely be a good academic source. Online book reviews can also be of value.

It is also important to distinguish between an author who is summarizing other people's views, and an author's who is expressing his or her own views. For example, if a passage in a secondary work read “Eighteenth century anatomical writing was profoundly misogynistic. Women were not only physically but also mentally inferior to men,” then it would be inaccurate to paraphrase this by stating “The author thinks that women are inferior to men.” In fact, the author is merely assessing the beliefs held by  eighteenth century anatomical writers, and is not sharing his or her own opinion on the subject. Read your sources with care, and be sure to identify correctly the agent or speaker who is making claims or expressing opinions. Your choice of secondary source material will have an impact on the nature of your investigation and the angle of your argument. Consult your instructor if you have any questions about your sources.