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HIST288: Biography and Historiography in the Pacific

Resources and techniques for biographical research of Pacific peoples

A Note About Primary and Secondary Sources

Distinguishing between "primary" and "secondary" sources can initially be confusing, but there are some relatively straightforward ways to tell the difference (although it should be noted that there are always exceptions to these rules--when in doubt, ask your instructor ... or a librarian!):

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or time period. They represent original thinking, reports on discoveries or events, or they can share new information. Often these sources are created at the time the events occurred. 

Secondary sources involve analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of primary sources, and are usually created some time after the events in question took place. They often attempt to describe, explain or distill primary sources of information.

Some examples of primary Hawai'i- and Pacific-related resources include:

  • diaries, correspondence, ships' logs

  • 18th and 19th century published voyaging accounts;

  • interviews, speeches, oral histories, autobiographies

  • government documents

  • creative art works, literature

  • newspaper articles and advertisements

  • photographs

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • textbooks

  • dictionaries and encyclopedias

  • biographies

  • scholarly writing (theses and dissertations, or journal articles

  • writing about literature, art works or music

Examples of sources that are sometimes primary source and sometimes secondary source materials:

  • Newspapers: An article published in 1893 regarding the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom is a primary source document (because it was written at the time the events it discusses were unfolding); an article published 50 years later, which is either written by someone who was witness to the events of 1893 or includes interviews with people who were there, is a also a primary source document (because it includes first-hand information, being published for the first time). An article on the same subject published in 2020 is a secondary source, which (if the author is a good historian) would rely on primary source documents to recreate the history of those events. For more on newspapers, click here.)
  • Early maps: Maps can sometimes be considered a primary source, in that they can document events as they were unfolding, in the same way a newspaper article can sometimes be a primary source. (For more on maps, click here.)