What are ‘Historical Sources’ and How they can be misinterpreted?

There is no historical record that can be considered as entirely objective, as it is written by someone present at the time of the event that carries his/her personal biases

Currently, Afghanistan is in a state of flux, but being a researcher and historian to find the reasons for this havoc, one has to depend on primary and secondary sources, but many readers do not know the difference between these sources and usually get carried away with misinformation or misinterpretation.

Therefore, in order to understand a historical event at any given point, the historian implies its historian craft to find answers to six questions that are 5 Ws (what had happened? when the event happened? where did it take place? why did it happen? who was it about) and an H (How did it happen).

These questions are of prime significance if one needs to determine whether they are primary and secondary sources. In order to determine the distinction between them, the ‘time factor’ of authoring that event plays a prominent role, e.g. first hand is usually immediately following the event whereas second hand is conveying the experience and opinion of others.

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Although the categorisation of both primary and secondary sources are not fixed, it depends on the study or research is was/is undertaken. This op-ed enlightens the readers on the understanding of these two sources and their usage.

Picture Source: Twitter @HinduHistory

First-hand/Original Contemporary Accounts: Primary Sources

Historical research is highly dependent upon the primary sources, as it is written at the time or soon after the historical event had occurred. The author/s of these sources is someone who has experienced or witnessed the event in question.

These first-hand/original accounts are considered valuable/more authentic historical records, and it belongs to the period under the study by the historian, and they are not filtered by interpretation or any assessment. For example, memoirs and autobiographies, old newspapers, autobiographies, archaeological artefacts, original accounts, journals, manuscripts, oral accounts, government records, census records, letters, oral histories, speeches and diaries, photographs, manuscripts, sketches etc.

It is mainly included as raw data, new observations or experiments that are published, reported or recorded for the first time. These records can be produced later by eyewitnesses or even by the participants.

Picture Source: Twitter @HinduHistory

A historian heavily depends on primary sources for history writings and explaining the causation of any event at a particular time and space. Researchers may use the primary source to come much closer to the original ideas, events and empirical research. These sources are considered more authoritative in historical value, as they represent original thinking, thoughts, reports, or events, that are usually created at the time the event had occurred.

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Thus, if one is researching about the past that is not directly accessible due to lapse of time, so the researcher has to depend on the primary sources that were written at the time of an event by the participant or witnesses. When research is period-based rather than event-based, the breadth of potential primary sources expands significantly.

Reproductions of original materials continue to be important for many research objectives. Some characteristics are dependent more on the source’s viewpoint and the context in which the source is utilised by the researcher. Though primary sources are considered of high historical value, these sources are most widely scattered and accessibility of these large number of documents sometimes become challenging, as historians have to visit archives, documentation centres, old libraries, excavating sites or archaeological evidence.

Even the primary sources have biases and objectivity because every document is biased, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the author of that source; it is mostly one point of view and may contain a person’s bias or prejudice towards an event. Another problem with primary source is that it may not cover all the information on a particular theme, which the researcher is researching, e.g. a traveller’s record may give diverse kinds of information on various themes that may not be of use of research who is studying on a particular theme.

Second hand: Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a work that interprets, analyzes, explains, synthesis, evaluates, or restatement of primary sources.

These sources are written or documented many years after a historical event or phenomenon. It is authored by another historian/researcher, who may not witness that historical event. For example, most of the scholarly and popular books, reference books, textbooks, monographs, encyclopaedias, literature reviews, biographies, journals and magazines, dissertations, newspaper editorials, opinion pieces, research articles.

It is not firsthand information, but it is gathered by using primary sources as a source of evidence. The usage of primary sources can be made differently by secondary authors to argue a contention or persuade the reader to convince the author’s arguments. These sets of sources are usually not considered as original evidence but rather a commentary on, interpretation of an event or discussion of evidence.

In the secondary source, the research need not be an expert but only need to comprehend the primary authors’ interpretation and develop an opinion on a primary source.

Picture Source: From Hinduphobia to Hindumisia.
Picture Source: From Hinduphobia to Hindumisia.

Subject Classification

Various research fields/subjects have different primary and secondary sources, every researcher needs to be aware of these differences. Sciences consider a finding of the test, experiments, observations, discoveries, statistical data, and other original research as a part of a primary source, whereas the interpretation and discussion of the results or test data in books and journals are considered secondary.

The literature considers novels, plays, short stories, poems, diaries, films and performances, and autobiographies as primary sources, whereas journals articles, biographies, reviews, secondary books, and articles are secondary.

Social sciences consider the physical objects, archaeological records, numismatics, inscriptions, memoirs, travellers records, newspaper records, original writings, government records, court records, legal texts, speeches, interviews, sculptures, original work of arts and paintings, photographs, statistical records, datasets while commentary and evaluation of reports, documents, books, journals and articles as secondary.


There is no historical record that can be considered as entirely objective, as it is written by someone present at the time of the event that carries his/her personal biases to write/record the primary source, whereas this prejudice becomes even higher when the secondary sources are written based on the biasness of the primary source.

Author: Dr Sakul Kundra, A.HOD Department of Social Science, College of Humanities and Education, Fiji National University.

Dr Sakul Kundra; Picture Source: Supplied
Dr Sakul Kundra; Picture Source: Supplied

Disclaimer: The views expressed are his own and not of The Australia Today or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email. dr.sakulkundra@gmail.com