Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Primary Source in History

The use of primary sources is critical to an understanding of history.

So what is a primary source? A primary source can be defined as: a document, speech, or other sort of evidence written, created or otherwise produced during the time under study. Primary sources offer an inside view of a particular event. (Definition accessed at http://www.library.unr.edu/instruction/help/primary.html)

So the definition of a primary source is wider than just a document or textual evidence. It can include music, folksongs, novels, paintings, sculptures, clothing and a host of other things. Today in our electronic age we have blogs, videos, social networking sites and YouTube clips that will be used by future generations of historians as primary sources to see how we lived. No doubt in hundreds of years time, people will watch clips of the 9/11 tragedy and gain an insight into our age and particular concerns. To really get to grips with history it is important to engage with a range of primary sources. It is too easy to look at books about primary sources (called secondary sources because they are at one remove from primary sources) or read what the experts see and miss the crucial evidence of handling the primary source materials ourselves. Read the Declaration of Independence instead of reading what Prof X says about it.

However, primary sources differ in relevance and there are some questions we need to ask ourselves when evaluating primary sources. What questions should we ask about Primary Sources? Lets take as an example the Civil War in the US.

1. How close to the time is the source? Generally the closer to the time of the action, the more valuable the source (documents/letters etc from the time period covered by the Civil War would be the most useful. Those written 10, 30 or 50 years later would have a decreasing relevance.

2. Who created the source? What was their position in society, Lord, General, maid, slave? Different people bring different perspectives on events.

3. Did the person have a view on the action? Are they biased in their view. Were they a Confederate or Union supporter, slave owner or abolitionist, neutral or partisan? You have to weigh up how honest and unbiased a source is before putting heavy reliance on it. In truth though, no human source can be completely unbiased, but some are more unbiased than others.

4. What does the source reveal between the lines? Sometimes in history we have to scan a document for examples of what is not there. You would expect a victorious General in a battle to say how wonderful everything was, but the losing General may well leave out pertinent material that would attribute blame to his actions. History is all around us and increasing in volume with every second. Handle the primary sources. Try to get a selection of sources from different stratas of society, gender and rank positions, from people with different levels of education and from different sides of a conflict or action. Weigh their respective validities and make your own conclusions. Learn to love learning, evaluating history is something we do every day without thinking about it. Keep the points above in mind and history will come alive.

First published on Qassia http://drkelp.qassia.com

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