Using Primary and Secondary Sources
PRIMARY SOURCES are generated by people who lived at the time and place under study. These are firsthand, eyewitness accounts by people who saw or participated in the historical events being analyzed. Historians rely on such materials from the past to create an understanding or interpretation of past events. Primary sources might include, for example:
- Diplomatic correspondence, treaties, consular notes, memoirs by diplomats, CIA reports and orders
Physical Artifacts, such as tools, weapons, inventions, uniforms, tombstones
Visual Images, such as photographs, film, video, fine art (paintings)
Oral and audio histories, including live interviews and listening to audio
Statistics, such as census data, figures on the economy, land surveys, maps
Printed text documents, such as cookbooks, traveler's reports, advertisements,
Manuscript (handwritten) documents, such as journals, letters, diaries, letters, notes.
"Documents--diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs--created by those who
participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even
the best-written [second-hand] article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources
exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware
that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events.
Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its
subjective nature. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch
the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they
develop important analytical skills."
- We should also be diligent in looking for flaws or shortcomings in our
historical evidence. In particular, diplomatic discourse has a language all its own. For example, international talks decribed as "frank" usually probably failed. Likewise other adjectives, such as cordial, don't mean what they do in regular life. Also recall that the public and private spheres of international relations can be very different. Government issue public statements often at various their their covert actions. Apply these
Tests of Historical Evidence
to any documents or other sources that you consider using. You'll use a wide range of primary sources, covering nearly 5 centuries, on your HI 453 Online Primary Sources.
- Many things militate against our gaining access to all the documents we would like. Check the variey of forces that destroy primary sources.
[The prior summary is adapted from
"History in the Raw," developed by the National Archives and Records Administration.
- Your textbook by Smith is a good example of a secondary source. SECONDARY sources come later, written after the fact by persons not actually
there. Historians use a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Among
secondary sources, we prefer SCHOLARLY sources. Scholarly books and articles
use footnotes or endnotes to they show where the information comes from.
Scholarly sources, written by experts in the field, undergo a rigorous process
of review and criticism by anonymous, informed referees.
Because scholarly publications are supported by foundations and professional
organizations, they do not have to pander to fads, whims, and tastes of the pop
market place. Unlike film makers, historians don't place products into their writing in order to earn extra income from advertisers. Thus they generally have higher reliability and credibility than
pop culture sources
ETHNOCENTRISM is a common human failing that can befall us whether we're trying to understand primary or secondary sources. It is the tendency to judge other
cultures [usually critically] according to the standards of one's own culture.
. Or, as Merriam-Webster tells us, it means "the attitude that one's own group
is superior." Ethnocentric people usually assume that their race, religion,
culture, and nation are superior to all others. They impose the assumptions and
perspective of their own culture upon all other situations that they encounter.
Ethnocentric people often judge what is different or strange to them to be
"bad, dumb, backward, pagan, primitive," etc. An ethnocentric person from the
US, who eats with fork and spoon, might deem the Chinese use of chopsticks to
be "stupid." Some people judge others from biases built into their social class
-- elite, middle class, working class, or poor.
In order to study and learn about other cultures, like Latin America, we must
try to recognize ethnocentric attitudes. We should try to understand another
culture in terms of that culture rather than prejudging it as wrong, stupid,
backward, etc., simply because it is different or unfamiliar. You'll see many examples of ethnocentric observations as you read the views expressed by one culture about another. Latin Americans hold erroneous or overgeneralized stereotypes of gringos just as Anglos do about Latinos and Latin Americans.
- Coping with ethnocentrism, however, does not mean abandoning one's moral standards. We do
not become simplistic functionalists who assume that just because a culture
engages in a practice, it is right and acceptable. We do not accept the Holocaust because Nazis thought it was a good idea. We still apply our critical
thinking skills to all historical and cultural evidence.
- Your Research Links Page includes many finding aides for locating primary and secondary sources.