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University Writing Center
September 02, 2014

Secondary Documents

A secondary document is not secondary to, or less important than, a primary document. The term “secondary” refers to the relationship of the author to the historical events being described. The writer of a secondary document is at least one person removed from experience or observation of the historical event. In other words, this individual did not experience or witness the events he or she writes about. More often than not, when we talk about secondary documents we are referring to articles and books written by historians or other scholars, who often use primary documents to construct their history. Secondary documents are critical to writing history for several reasons:

  • Secondary documents often place historical events in a wider historical context;
  • Secondary documents provide disciplinary background.  You can find out which arguments have already been made, whose theories you will need to reference, particularly if you are going to argue against them;
  • Reading secondary documents often leads writers to revise their thesis, thus creating a more subtle argument;
  • Historians who have written secondary documents have done much of the footwork, providing coherent narratives of historical events, connecting a number of primary documents that will allow you to write your paper; and
  • Secondary documents often provide clues to additional research you may need to do, either pointing the way to primary or secondary documents that you need to read.

What is a “document”? There was a time when defining what we mean by document was relatively easy. With the proliferation of new technologies, from radio to movies to television to photography, the internet, and digital documentation, what counts as a reliable historical document has been revised. Photographs, because they document events visually, are often considered valuable historical documents. A “picture is worth a thousand words,” at least until it has been photo-shopped. Radio may have been the first electronic technology to radically change how we think about documenting historical events. From its advent, radio has been used to report newsworthy events. Both recording and transcriptions of those broadcasts have become a part of the historical record, as have Television and DocumentaryMovies. Care should be taken with any of these “documents.” Television and movie documentaries, such as the Ken Burns PBS documentary, The Civil War, often show primary documents, particularly photographs and newsreels. However, the documentary itself is a secondary document. It interprets history rather than records that history. Fictionalized accounts of historical events (including Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movies) should not be used as resources at all unless you are writing about popular attitudes, media distortion, or how movies get history wrong. Even docudramas that take every precaution to remain true to their sources, such as the mini-series Band of Brothers, should be suspect. Note, however, that Band of Brothers included clips from interviews of the men portrayed in the docudrama, which might be used as documentation. Digitized versions of primary documents, translations, and transcripts are available either in books in the library, databases, or the internet. Most historians try to work with the actual document when they can, though that is not always possible. The Internet has become such a prominent source research that it will be handled in another section.

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