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History - United States History: Read Secondary Sources

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources offer interpretation or commentary on primary sources. They are the “product” of historians doing history - a part of historians’ ongoing discussion or debate about the past. Secondary sources, therefore, can be argued with, criticized, or defended against criticism. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Monographs (Scholarly books)
  • Biographies
  • Commentaries
  • Critical works
  • Documentaries
  • Histories
  • Reviews
  • Peer-reviewed journals

How to Read Secondary Sources

"A historian working on a particular subject is expected to show a thorough knowledge of the work of other historians in that field. They will be expected to show how their work stands in relation to these other accounts, in terms of their methodology, interpretations and use of sources."1

Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, Doing History (New York : Routledge, 2011), 68.

When reading secondary sources - some general suggestions:

Understand the author’s argument. What is the author's thesis? What previous historical arguments or interpretations is the author trying to refute or expand upon?

Understand the context in which the historian was writing.  Does the historian's time period have bearing on her interpretations? Does the historian's geographical location have an influence on his work?  Does the historian subscribe to a particular school of thought or methodology?

Understand the sources used. All history is based on primary sources. How deep and well-rounded is the body of sources the author used? If the sources were all written from one point of view, for example, this weakens any argument that the historian can make.

When reading books as secondary sources

Read the title. Think about what the title promises for the book.

Look at the table of contents. This is your "menu" for the book. What can you tell about its contents and structure from the TOC?

Read the book from the outside in. Read the foreword and introduction. Read the conclusion or epilogue.

Ask yourself what the author's thesis might be. How has the argument been structured? This will be a key to your understanding of the rest of the argument.

Read chapters from the outside in. Quickly read the first and last paragraph of each chapter. After doing this and taking the step outlined above, you should have a good idea of the book's major themes and arguments. You should be able to identify if all the book is important to read or if you can focus on certain chapters.

Do a close reading of the important chapters and take notes. Record your thoughts about the reading rather than simply the details and contents of the text. What surprised you? What seemed particularly insightful? What seems suspect? What reinforces or counters points made in other readings? This kind of note taking will keep your reading active, and actually will help you remember the contents of the text.

When reading scholarly articles as secondary sources

Read the introduction and discussion/conclusion. These sections offer the main argument and hypothesis of the article. What is the author's thesis? How is this research unique?

Read the literature review. In the literature review you will find the background and context for the current study. What is already known about this topic and what original interpretation does the author state s/he will contribute to the topic?

Read the author's main argument. Does the author support their conclusions with primary sources? Are the primary sources balanced? Did the author analyze the sources critically or simply reflect the positions/conclusions of the sources? Were the author’s biases, prejudices, and values evident?  What were they?  Do they seem to have distorted the account and analysis, or did the author successfully present a reasonably balanced work of scholarship?

 Re-read the conclusion. What contribution does the work make?  Does it provide readers with something important and new in either findings or interpretations?  How does the work fit into larger historiographical debates?  Does it provide an argument for or against a scholarly interpretation?  Does it move debates in new directions?

When reading any secondary source, ask yourself:

What gaps or deficiencies remain in the scholarship on this topic? (Sometimes the author's conclusion specifies remaining gaps).

Do you agree with the author's interpretation, but you believe you can contribute more evidence or additional arguments to support the interpretation?

Do you disagree with the author's interpretation due to a logical flaw, lack of evidence, biased evidence or additional/newly discovered evidence?