In our last methodology post, we very broadly discussed different types of source materials that inform historical research and writing. Today, we’re going to take a little detour and talk specifically about primary sources for a minute because even within the historical community there is often a limited (and limiting!) view of what can constitute a good primary source and how they should be used. So, c’mon, let’s leave our preconceived notions at the door and get creative!
The first choice for most historians are sources that are officially generated (think government reports, ship manifests, or an organization’s bylaws) because when we start with hard facts and numbers, it eliminates a lot of the guesswork that comes with trying to fit various pieces of a historical puzzle together into a coherent and accurate narrative. The next choice is typically the writings of “known” individuals or groups (think diaries, personal letters, and memos). This is due to the fact that a person who is known to history is more likely to have left a body of writing that gives us an idea of the person and their place in events as well as the fact that it’s often easier to check the veracity of their accounts against the accounts of those to whom they have a known connection.
These types of official and at least relatively easily verified sources are, of course, a fantastic way to build a solid narrative. They’re also plentiful for many of the most commonly studied eras and events (such as wars, diplomatic and trade negotiations, the formation and fall of countries, cultural revolutions, etc.), which means that we are able to examine these things from many different angles to form well-rounded pictures of the past.
What happens when a historian wants to walk off the beaten path, though? When we want to study something that has little to no official documentation or something that falls outside of what might be considered a traditional historical narrative? What happens when the narrative demands understanding borne from authenticity rather than objective truth? Or when we find ourselves less interested in what a historical figure says than we are in how he says it? We have to look past fail safe source materials and get creative!
Say, for instance, that I’m interested in the American punk community’s attitudes toward women over the course of 25 years. Since “punk” is not a monolith corporation or government entity, there’s no report I can look up that has a section titled “Article VIII – On the Subject of Women.” Since each “known person” within the community had (and has) their own views on women’s presence and participation, I can’t use the opinions of one or two of them to make a blanket statement about “Women’s Place in Punk” since that would require disregarding the potentially dissenting views of thousands of unknown punks. So, now what?
Beginning with the earliest days of punk in the United States, each scene had its own fanzine(s) – homemade magazines created by fans within a given scene to be distributed to other fans – that hold a wealth of information about a local scene’s culture, values, and attitudes. (This is, of course, in addition to more practical information on bands and venues.) By examining and comparing fanzines from various scenes at various points through punk history, it is possible to trace the evolution of what place women occupied within both a specific geographical area and the wider punk community.
Just like fanzines are a great example of how non-traditional sources can still hold a wealth of historical information, historians can also use traditional sources in non-traditional ways. Instead of reading a letter and writing about “this is what Radegund of Thuringia told Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia in 568,” we can instead see the letter as Radegund’s personal document that gives us access to her, or — more accurately — to the persona or mask Radegund wanted Justin II and Sophia to see. In the letter linked above, for example, she kisses Justin’s ass and therefore presents herself as one of his loyal subjects, as well as the best Christian that ever lived and someone who is educated enough to use complicated Latin. She didn’t just write a letter, but hoped to accomplish something with it.
So, even from these two small examples, it becomes clear that sometimes sources that seem weird to base our research on at first glance can still give us a lot of insight into our subject. Additionally, sources that don’t seem at all suitable to answer our research questions might hold more information than we realize if we look past the surface. The key is to get creative, think outside of the box, and look at materials from different angles. There are no limitations to the ways we can use primary sources as long as we follow a sound and consistent methodology!