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Defining Primary and Secondary Sources

I know I want to start a research project on the life of Harriet Tubman. What I know so far is that she was born into slavery in 1820 and she died in March 1913. Now it's time for me to take the next step. In order to learn more about Harriet Tubman and her work, I need to find different historical sources. These historical sources are called primary sources and secondary sources.

My teacher, Mr. Lexington, spent a whole class explaining the difference between primary and secondary sources. He said it is important to learn the difference, because it will help me to easily recognize important historical documents.

Harriet Tubman photograph

Primary sources are original documents that give a firsthand account of an historical event and are created by someone who participated in the event.

In the activity below, you will learn the definition and purpose of primary source and secondary source, and also find some examples.

That’s all fine and good, but I still need to know what a secondary source is. Here’s what Mr. Lexington taught us in class.

I have to be honest. The idea of secondary sources was a little confusing. I mean, why should I pay attention to what someone who lived 20 or 50 or even 100 years after Harriet Tubman says about her? Well, Mr. Lexington had an answer for that too.

Click through the following slideshow to see how Jasmine’s teacher, Mr. Lexington, helps her understand secondary sources.

Speaker plays audio

Understanding Secondary Sources

Mr Lexington talking to Jasmine.

Secondary sources help build the story of your research from multiple perspectives and give your research historical context.

Close-up of Jasmine talking to the camera

Let me translate Mr. Lexington for you: What he’s saying is that secondary sources are written after the fact so they help give you a big-picture view of your topic.

Wide shot of Jasmine at a desk

Oh, and in case you were wondering, let me show you one primary source and one secondary source that Mr. Lexington suggested for my Harriet Tubman project.

Jasmine holding up a photograph of Harriet Tubman

Primary source: Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait.
Image credit: Library of Congress

First the primary source. This is a photograph of Harriet Tubman that was taken sometime between 1871 and 1876, which means she was in her late 40s or early 50s when the photograph was taken.

Close up on the words nurse spy and scout

Did you notice how someone wrote “nurse, spy and scout” at the bottom of the picture? That sums up Harriet Tubman perfectly!

photo of Harriet Tubman inside of book

Now for one of my secondary sources. Check out this book! It’s called Courageous Women of the Civil War, and it was written by Melinda Cordell. Her book was published in 2016 – that’s 103 years after Harriet Tubman died!

Jasmine in class pointing at the book

Mr. Lexington says it’s a great starting point that will help me understand the big picture of Harriet Tubman’s story. I can’t wait to read it!