Historical Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

Commentary on Tosh’s Pursuit of History, chapter 3

Modern history writing is unique from ancient forms of the same craft because it tends to adhere to the academic custom of citing sources and providing evidence for statements of fact. In previous eras history had an at least somewhat mythological character as it was often sourced from the author’s own memory, commands from his superiors or from the culture’s storytelling and/or religious traditions. The introduction of citation of sources as a basis of writing history properly has inspired the classification of these documents into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. A successful historian considers all three types of sources and is charged, after carefully judging their validity as well as connecting events into a greater chronological context, compiling a cohesive account of the past.

Primary documents are original materials deriving from the location and time of the subject being researched which can range from written records, to physical artifacts, to archaeological finds, to personal writings, to anything else deriving directly from the source, yet to be filtered by research or conjecture. Examples of such sources include the journal of Christopher Columbus, the bronze Hoplon of a 4th century BCE Theban hoplite, the holocaust records of Nazi Germany detailing mass exterminations and logistical planning, the writings of philosophers such as the Epistles of Seneca, the ancient Judahite ruins at Tel Megiddo, Charlie Rose interviews, the testimony of Allied soldiers who were present at the Malmedy massacre, the Declaration of Independence, a photograph of the Empire State Building and the Mona Lisa, to name a mere few. Primary sources must be carefully scrutinized for validity by examining the origins and context of the documents, as well as linguistic and literary evolution in the case of text documents.

In this former caution we may look to the example of the “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” a popular image and story depicting the conquest of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima by US marines during the Pacific island hopping campaign of World War II. A photograph (now famous) depicting marines raising the US flag atop Mount Suribachi along with an accompanying story of heroism and marine devotion to country was nationally syndicated[1] following the fall of the island in February 1945. The newspapers claimed that the marines pictured had heroically and on their own initiative forged through Japanese gunfire during the midst of the battle and charged themselves with raising the flag, that the picture was a record of their exploits. In truth the picture depicted a company of marines replacing a previously posted flag, deemed to be too small to be observed by passing units (and which coincidentally was posted by marines actually engaged in heavy combat[2]) under orders of superiors during a complete lull in the fighting, after the beachhead of the island had already been taken and the interior was already being made secure[3].

As we see in this example a primary document (a photograph depicting a scene and the accompany first hand account) has been distorted for a sort of propaganda purpose and incorrectly represents the case of things as they were on Mount Suribachi during the invasion of Iwo Jima, February, 1945. As such we must reject this primary document and only accept those which hold up against the analytical trial of investigation and inquiry, and to which may be corroborated by other evidence.

The second type of source is secondary. Secondary sources are essentially commentaries on primary sources which often come in the form of interpretations or evaluation. Secondary sources are not evidence but do allow historians to understand the opinions of the people or culture judging the primary source.  A special class of secondary sources written by expert academics can also be very useful as guides in encountering and handling the inspection of primary documents by introducing compelling arguments, unfamiliar evidence and historical context. The writing of history is the writing of secondary sources: all history writings are secondary sources which attempt to model and explain the past by reflecting upon compiled primary evidence in conjunction with considered expert secondary opinion. Examples of secondary sources include academic commentaries such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History, Plutarch’s Lives, Jonathon Hughes’ American Economic History, biographies, websites, journal articles, magazines, newspaper stories, in addition to treatises and monographs such as Japanese Monograph No. 152 by Military History Section Headquarters, Army Forces Far East, the 9/11 Commission’s findings, Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria and Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.

Lastly tertiary sources are simply distillations and organization of primary and secondary information into reference material. Examples of tertiary documents include almanacs, dictionaries, databases, encyclopedias and technical manuals.

Bringing all of these three sorts of sources together we can have a good understanding of the philosophies of René Descartes by reading Discourse on the Method as a primary source, delving into the context surrounding the man by reading a biography or monograph as a secondary source and referencing a tertiary manual of Latin to translate the academic Latin found within. In another example an individual seeking to gain knowledge of Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens would be advised to view the painting itself and read the artist’s journal, read a journal article describing the piece’s symbolism and context within the discipline of art history and to consider an encyclopedia entry on Florence. Let it be said and be said firmly that this process need not be chronological – but it must be encompassing.  It is this method, of carefully considering all three types of sources and then finally modeling a compiled account of the past which tends to produce logically rigorous, well argued and cogent history writing.


[1] Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers, p. 220.

[2]Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima. Famous Pictures: The Magazine. http://www.famouspictures.org/mag/index.php?title=Raising_The_Flag_On_Iwo_Jima

[3] Iwo Jima Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi. Navy Historical Center. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq87-3l.htm