Evaluating Primary & Secondary Research Resources

Scroll towards the bottom of the page for links & ideas for finding resources.

The resources you use can be divided into two general types: primary and secondary.   You should plan to have at least one good primary resource about your character.  Advanced students should create most of their project from information found in primary sources.

Primary resources are documents or objects that were created during the time period you’re studying and provide direct or first-hand evidence, so they can offer a valuable insider’s view of a character or event.   They’re usually written by someone who experienced or witnessed the actual event.  Primary resources can include:

  • Personal eyewitness accounts
  • Quotes from your character
  • Autobiographies, memoirs, & diaries
  • Letters or speeches written by your character
  • Photographs, videos, or news footage of your character
  • Interviews with your character
  • official records (such as records on births, deaths, marriages, voting, jail, property sales, census, etc. )
  • laws, records of legal proceedings, government documents like a constitution or bill of rights
  • newspaper advertisements and articles from that time period
  • objects from your character’s time period such as clothing, tools, or even buildings
  • Sometimes a biography can be partly a primary resource if it was written in the same time period that your character lived, or if it was written by someone who knew your character well
  • Works created by your character, such as a painting, an invention, a journal article written by your character, or the play Henry VIII if you’re studying Shakespeare
  • Epics such as The Odyssey or Gilgamesh can be primary resources of the culture from which they originate
Secondary resources are materials that were created sometime after the time period that you’re studying, or those that analyze or interpret facts about a character or event.  Although they lack the immediacy of a primary resource, secondary sources can still give you a very good overview of your character or the region/time period in which he lived.  However, they’re often not as reliable as primary sources, so you’ll want to verify any information you get from secondary sources.   Secondary sources will often list a bibliography (a list of resources used) that can lead you to primary resources about your character. Secondary Resources include:
  • opinions or editorials about your character – even if published at the time your character lived
  • Wikipedia – great for initial information that you can verify for accuracy later. Be sure to check the bibliography & resources section at the bottom of the page.
  • Biographies – again, check the bibliography for primary resources.
  • Children’s books – often an easy way to get a quick overview of a character or a historical time period – be sure to verify any facts for accuracy later.
  • Movies – a fun and easy way to learn about your character & their time period. However, be sure to check the facts carefully – often completely made-up stories are added to create more drama or excitement, or the actual history is changed to make a happier ending.
  • Textbooks or ‘overview’ books with titles such as The History of Egypt.
  • Books/essays about your character (such as William Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII if you’re studying the English King Henry VIII).
  • Books/essays about something your character wrote (The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen’s Novels if you’re studying Jane Austen).
  • If you’re portraying an author, look for a version of your character’s written works from the publisher Norton – they often contain many good secondary resources in the back.

**No matter what your source, always check for a bibliography to find more (and maybe better!) sources.**

Aim to find 3 kinds of resources for your character:

  • Big Picture resources: a reference book, children’s book, short biography outline or wikipedia page. These resources are a great starting point but are not enough for detail or accuracy.
  • Lots of Detail resources: read a full-length biography by a known historian if at all possible for your character.  You may also be able to get meaty details from resources such as newspaper articles from the time period, museum or historical society websites, or documentary movies.
  • Meet Your Character In Person resources: primary resources such as letters, diaries, interviews, speeches, or a full-length autobiography book.

Where to find primary resources:

  • play around with lots of internet search terms – try searching your character’s name along with words like letters, diary, journal, quote, autobiography, manuscript, obituary, interview, museum, Smithsonian, photograph, video, news, etc. 
  • search your character’s name on: Google Books, Hathi Trust Digital Library,  or other digital libraries.
  • call museums related to your character and ask if they have documents, photos, etc. you could copy.  This may seem intimidating,  but most museums are thrilled to help out young researchers, and many have obscure but interesting documents that aren’t available online.
  • check out Boulder Public Library’s many primary source research links here.
  • The U.S. Library of Congress’s National Digital Library has historical photos, maps, documents, letters, speeches, recordings, videos, prints, and more.
  • Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebooks Project  has thousands of primary resources available free online from a wide range of cultures and all periods of history.
  • The University of Houston hosts the Digital History website with many primary resources from U.S. History.
  • Brigham Young University offers this database of European History documents.
  • The U.S. National Archives contain documents and materials created by the United States Federal government.    
  • The Smithsonian Institute offers a wide variety of resources for researchers here.
  • The Perseus Digital Library has materials related to ancient Greece & Rome as well as more recent time periods.
  • The Vincent Voice Library maintains a collection of over 40,000 hours of spoken word recordings, dating back to 1888.
  • There are certainly many more great sites out there, whether you’re researching a character related to WW II or Egypt or anything in between.  Do some creative googling and let me know if you find something else noteworthy!
Some issues to consider as you evaluate the quality of your sources:
  • If you see the same information repeated in several different sources, you can probably feel more confident that it’s accurate.  Unless, of course, all your resources used the same single questionable source to obtain their information!
  • See what you can learn about the author of your resource and how that might affect the accuracy.  For example, if the author was an enemy of your character, will the information be reliable?  What if the author was your character’s beloved granddaughter?   Is the writer neutral or does that person have a personal or political bias about the subject?   If you can’t tell who created it, how can you tell if it is real/truthful?
  • Who published the book or created the website?  If your resource was previewed by experts in the subject or if there was an editorial staff checking for accuracy, it may be more reliable than a book that was self-published.  Does the writer or the news source have a good reputation for truthful reporting?  Websites with addresses ending in .org or .edu in general tend to be more accurate.
  • Even photos and video can be altered, so it’s important to verify the accuracy of all the resources you use.
  • Textbooks used in high school or college classrooms may give you a broad overview, but generally they are not good resources for accurate details.
  • If you’re not sure how reliable your information is, please ask a teacher, parent, or librarian to help you investigate it further. Teachers and college professors have recently been using more primary sources in the classroom, because rather than just accepting what someone else (like a textbook author) says on a subject, you can reach your own informed conclusions about your character through primary resources. Remember, though, that even primary resources are not always truthful – people can lie in an interview or a diary entry, right?!  
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