Sources are the lifeblood of the historian’s craft. They inform every aspect of our research and our arguments and without them, we wouldn’t be able to form meaningful narratives about the past. In this post, we’re going to explore the different categories of source materials and how each is commonly used in scholarly pursuits. In addition, we’re going to cover how historians evaluate the informational value of sources – a process that is just as applicable to reading today’s headlines as it is to reading a historical text!
There are three main categories of sources available to historians: primary, secondary, and tertiary, and although they each inform different aspects of our work, they all have a place in our toolbox.
Primary sources are materials that originated within history and speak directly to the events or people being studied from a first person point of view. Common examples of primary sources include personal letters, chronicles, government documents, and newspaper articles. Movies, TV shows, photographs, and music are also primary sources, though they’re often overlooked!
We use primary sources to accurately research the past, since they’re our first hand connection to that past. That means we have to treat them carefully, though (both literally if you’re making use of original documents instead of editions, and figuratively), because a source never exists in a vacuum. It was always written by a specific person, for a specific audience and with a specific goal in mind.
The secondary source category is populated largely by the written historiography we discussed in the last post – books and articles that have already been written on a subject. The marks of secondary sources are that they analyze primary sources and present an argument based on that interpretation. Because of that, secondary sources are both used to place your subject or your primary source in its historical context and to look at arguments other historians have made, at the methods they used and the conclusions they came to. Secondary sources let you figure out who you’d like to argue with or where historians have previously missed important information.
The tertiary source category consists of things like encyclopedias (including Wikipedia, sorry!) and dictionaries – sources that serve to summarize or define something rather than presenting analysis or arguments. Due to their non-specific nature, they are best used for getting an overview of a topic before moving on to more reliable and informative source materials.
Now that you’re familiar with the types of sources available, let’s talk about how historians evaluate them! To evaluate primary source material, historians look at the content of the source first to research four things:
- Interpretation: What does the author of the source tell us? Why does he say it like that and not another way? Who is he writing for?
- Authority: What was the relation of the author to what he’s telling us about? Was he an eye-witness?
- Competence: In how much detail does author write about his subject?
- Sincerity: How objective or subjective was the author? Did he have a specific agenda?
Secondly, after the content has been examined, we’ll take a look at the source itself in what we call external criticism. Historians ask themselves a few questions about how the source came to be, made its way to the present time and in what form:
- Text: What kind of source is it? (a narrative source? an archive record?) Where was the source found? Is there any evidence that it could be a falsification?
- Origin: How, why and when was the source created? Who wrote it? What do we know about this person?
- Originality: Is the source original or is it based on another source?
Just like with primary sources, secondary sources need to be evaluated before we can use them. Here are the most important questions to ask:
- Who is the author? What are those person’s qualifications? (Are they a historian? A journalist? A layperson who chose to undertake the research and write a book? Knowing this allows us to understand the frame of reference the author is writing from.)
- When was the source written and in what context? (A book about the history of gay people in the US written in the 1950s will be very different – both in content and conclusions – from one written in the early 2000s and those differences need to be contextualized within our own writing.)
- What argument are they making? Do they make it successfully? Are their conclusions logical and well supported by their chosen sources? Does the work seem overtly biased? (We all have biases, but a good historian tries to keep those biases out of their writing as much as possible rather than building an argument with the specific goal of proving them true.)
- What sources did they use? Do those sources seem reliable? (It’s important to know if an author has cherry-picked a handful of sources to support their claims while ignoring a majority of sources that contradict them!)
- How do the author’s conclusions line up with the rest of the historiography? How do historians view the work? (It can be a big red flag if an author’s conclusions are wildly different from all the conclusions made by other historians, for instance. In the past ten years, there’s been a massive rise in the publication of pseudo-history – books that promise to ‘change everything you know about this subject!’ or ‘offer a fresh (usually highly politicized) view of the subject!’ Those books are typically not considered worthwhile source material.)
In conclusion, there are a myriad of different types of source material and methods to study them, but ultimately history as a scientific endeavor is based on a pretty scientific procedure to approach these sources. To write objectively about the past, historians have to try and understand the past and how it was experienced by the people they’re writing about. That means figuring out what unique challenges our primary sources present and how to best work our way around those as well as choosing sound secondary source materials. Different types of sources let us look at the tiniest details of life in the past or let us trace back big shifts and put together grand evolutions. Sources and evaluating those sources are at the core of practicing history and they keep us on our toes because no two stories – even of the same event – are ever completely the same.
Links for further reading: