Local Studies Toolkit
Sources of Information
There are a number of key resources that need to be consulted when researching local history. These can be divided into primary and secondary sources.
A primary source is usually an original document that provides ‘raw' data for the researcher to interpret. For the local historian, this will include first hand accounts, such as photographs, illustrations, newspapers and manuscripts, but importantly it also includes sources such as maps and census returns.
In contrast, a secondary source provides information that has been collected and interpreted by someone who has studied primary and other secondary sources. This can include existing local history books, text and reference books, journals and information on the Internet.
Both types of sources have benefits and disadvantages. Secondary sources often provide the reader with a summary of the information held within primary and other secondary sources. There is, however, always the risk that the writer may have misunderstood the source, left important facts out or even explained it in a way that distorts the truth. In contrast, primary sources can be used to provide very specific and focused information. Unfortunately, primary sources can often be difficult to interpret. It can take time and some searching before the relevant information is found.
Secondary sources can provide a good starting point from which to plan the main themes of your study. It is always worth consulting secondary sources in order to find out what research has already been done on an area. Generally, it is after such initial research that primary sources are consulted. Secondary sources can be used in conjunction with primary sources. For instance, some primary sources, such as Ordnance Survey maps, can be helpful for further understanding and relating to some secondary sources, such as the Victoria County Histories or the various other published county histories that exist.
It is always worth remembering that no source should be used in isolation. You will want to gather as much information as possible from as many sources as possible when conducting your research. The real research begins when comparing these different sources.