In their research, historians use both primary sources and secondary sources to collect information about the past. In many cases, secondary sources, after-the fact commentary on historic events, are most readily available. A secondary source can be defined as an “account of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened.”
A primary source is a document created at the time of a historical event – a contemporary account of historic happenings. Primary sources are “actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, and articles of clothing.” A journal kept by a Civil War soldier during the fighting would be an example of a primary source document.
Types of Primary Sources
Primary sources can be documents written for a large audience and published for wide distribution. Published primary source documents may include government documents, non-government studies or reports, literature, advertisements, newspapers, magazines, maps, pamphlets, posters, legal documents, court decisions, books, fliers, etc.
Examples of unpublished primary sources include personal letters, diaries, journals, wills, deeds, family Bibles, school report cards, probate inventories, business correspondence, financial ledgers, information about customers, board meeting minutes, and research and development files for businesses.
The government also produces unpublished documents when the information included is of a more private or confidential nature: police and court records, census records, tax and voter lists, departmental reports, and classified documents. Other unpublished primary sources are produced by community organizations, churches, service clubs, political parties, and labor unions and include membership lists, meeting minutes, speeches, and financial and other records.
In some cases, it can be difficult to find unpublished primary sources. This is particularly true with personal documents that may be in the possession of individuals. However, these documents are usually well worth the time spent searching for them; because they are more intimate, they often provide interesting details about the past.
Oral Traditions and Oral Histories
Historians also learn about the past from non-written sources. Listening to spoken stories and tales that reveal the lives of ordinary people may help historians to learn about minority groups, often excluded from mainstream historical documentation. Oral tradition is one of the most ancient ways of passing along information, preceding the written word. Several cultures still have a strong tradition of passing along information about the past and the people orally.
Oral histories can be gathered through interviews; in fact, during the Great Depression, the government employed people to gather information from ex-slaves in this manner.
Visual documents include photographs, films, paintings, and other types of artwork. The advantage of visual documents is that they tend to provide a snapshot of a person, event, or community at a specific point in time. This allows them to be useful when measuring change over time and gathering evidence about contemporary popular culture: customs, preferences, styles, holidays, work, play, etc.
Three Dimensional Artifacts
Three dimensional objects are also a form of primary sources. Like visual documents, these objects can provide information about change over time and can help us to gather information about contemporary popular culture. They can also provide clues about available technology of the time: the cut of the wood can tell us whether a two person saw or a circular saw was used. We can tell by the stitching on a dress whether a sewing machine was used in its creation, or whether it was hand-sewn.
The Time and Place Rule
In general, “the closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be.” Therefore, the most reliable sources will be direct traces of the event (such as a flier advertising a political rally) or accounts of the event created at the time by firsthand observers or participants. As accounts become more distant from the events, they become less reliable: accounts created after the event by firsthand observers or participants or accounts created after the event by people who neither participated nor witnessed it, but got information from those who did, are viewed as less reliable sources.
Bias is present in every source, primary or secondary. It is important that the audience keep in mind that all documents are an interpretation; that is they tell us only what the creator of the document saw, felt, or thought. The audience should exercise a certain amount of skepticism and critical thinking when reading or examining all documents. Always consider the creator’s point of view and cross-check the information against that provided by other sources.