sources raise questions, perhaps first among them: What is a primary source? Other
questions are less obvious. They represent a spectrum of concerns that
range from critical reading skills to the nature and limits of historical
knowledge. These issues are discussed below. The purpose of this brief
introduction to Primary Sources is to provide useful working definitions
about historical sources and practical tips for reading primary documents.
This short essay ends with selected readings from various historians
on the importance and use of primary sources.
the outset it must be admitted that the common distinction between primary
and secondary sources is problematic -- however useful, it may be entirely artificial.
By tradition, a primary source represents firsthand testimony or direct
evidence concerning a given topic. Primary sources are often associated
with a particular event, with those who participated or witnessed an
event, or those who directly authored thoughts on a given topic, whether
as a philosopher, scientist, fiction writer, journalist, or someone writing a letter or diary. Here historians are
concerned about several issues, most importantly, the value of the source.
This negotiable quality often involves authenticity,
credibility, usefulness and the authority, reliability, and status of the author. Some sources are valuable due to dumb luck; by chance the document survives, by chance the author scribbled about an expected or little-known event.
'the value and usefulness of a source' is open to question (as discussed
more fully below) it is important to discuss the various categories
and traditions associated with documents themselves. By tradition,
different kinds of documents have carried different degrees of value
and prestige, for example, historians have different views of the relative
merits of handwritten manuscripts (unpublished diaries;
journals; research notebooks; letters; notary, baptismal,
legal, and other handwritten records such as census reports) and contemporary
printed, often synonymous with published, documents (printed
materials ranging from broadsides, leaflets, and newspapers to monographs
The status of these documents, and their relative
positions in various hierarchies, have changed over the last several
centuries. Take a few minutes to jot down as many specific kinds of
'primary sources' as you can. Compare your list with the list at the
very bottom of this page. Clearly 'primary sources' have changed over
time. With these changes come new challenges in interpretation. But
before approaching that problem, it is useful to provide some simple
distinctions concerning these categories.
sources fall into several categories and physical formats which
sometimes overlap. The vast majority of printed or published texts include
books and monographs. By current definition, a book is composed of leaves
of paper, parchment, or other materials joined together (sewn, bolted,
glued, etc.) whether it is printed, published, handwritten, or blank.
A more recent invention, the monograph is traditionally described as
a work written on a single topic (hence mono-graph) that is systematic.
In practice, at least during this century, monographs are often shorter
and sometimes more specialized than books. The reader can now see the
useful limits of defining these objects. Specific examples (associated
with a given time and place) are often more useful than abstract definitions.
the seventeenth century, there has been a marked increase in the number
and kinds of other printed and published sources now commonly known
as serials. Examples of serials include newspapers, periodicals, scholarly
journals, and magazines. Generically, as the term suggests, serials
are published or circulated on a regular time schedule. The 'serial'
component suggests that publication commenced at a given time and appeared
'periodically' at a regular 'daily' (jour-nal), weekly, monthly, or
quarterly (4 x year) interval.
Good examples for our purposes include the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and the
Journal des Sçavans. But we should be careful about
our assumptions. Newspapers may have begun as broadsides or single sheet
printings designed for the general reader (some seem to have been intended
to be read aloud for the non-literate). From the outset, Henry Oldenburg
published the Philosophical Transactions privately. We know little
about how many copies of the PT were printed, much less where
they were sent or who read them. Indeed, it is possible to ask if they
were widely read at all, much less widely understood. In France, the
Journal des Sçavans appeared irregularly during its first decades,
and it appears to have had an identity crisis regarding its audience.
The editors also seem to have been at odds with the journal's sponsors.
As always, context is important, and readers of primary texts should
be cautious about transporting contemporary assumptions
into the past.
are often described as 'unique documents' which may be either handwritten,
duplicated by a mechanical tracing device, typed, or otherwise electronically
reproduced. Since the 19th century definitions have changed
concerning manuscripts. For example, the term 'manuscript'
has changed as it applies to individual written works, personal papers,
correspondence, archives, and so forth. Today the term generally applies
to a body of records, personal papers, or to a collection of manuscripts
conserved by an individual or institution other than the original author.
Read Primary Sources?
historians have argued that primary sources provide important insight
not only into the past but into the writing of history itself. Primary
sources, it is argued, make history come alive, they immerse the reader
in a network of issues and a variety of perspectives rather
than a single vision or secondary summary. At their best, primary sources
challenge conventional interpretations by presenting not only the full
complexity of issues but sometimes a series of stark contradictions. Primary sources problematize historical interpretations.
More troublesome, if primary readings represent
a puzzle, the puzzle inevitably has missing pieces. The challenge then becomes two-fold.
The reader must not only attempt to understand the text as the author
intended it (if this is humanly possible) but must also make sense of
the text despite lost or limited information. To these difficulties,
there is the additional problem of 'hidden' or unsuspected meanings. The 'meaning(s)' of a text inevitably invites discussion of context and sub-text.
the most perplexing problem with primary sources is that the 'meaning'
of a text is not black and white. It is difficult to imagine a text
that is not open to multiple interpretations and hence scholarly
negotiation. What an author writes is seldom transparent or a simple matter of historical documentation or textual fact. Here historical texts not only
raise problems with our assumptions about 'objectivity' and 'honesty'
but the very possibility of establishing a single defensible 'reading'
of the text. To be sure, experience and rigorous research can help distinguish between a 'good reading' and others that are less defensible, appropriate, or satisfying.
But it often happens that the most important and
telling elements of a primary text are absent, marginal, or easily glossed
over. Interpretation is inevitable and often a dicey affair. Interpretation
prompts the reader to come to grips with the text as well as the broader
intellectual, cultural, and social contexts. And the task does not end
there. Understanding the context (the surrounding circumstances) of
a text often directs the reader to the difficult question of the 'subtext'
of the author, that is, to the author's reasons, purposes, goals, motives,
and, dare we say it, the author's intent. Hence: Text, Context, Subtext.
Each becomes an inter-textual component of any sophisticated and nuanced reading.
The critical yet sympathetic reader approaching
an historical text is thus drawn into the historical context (the broader contemporary
circumstances) as well as the author's subtext (intellectual assumptions and
personal motives). There is ample room for debate about what historians can know about such matters. Scholars disagree about what reading strategies are
appropriate and what value there is to such an enterprise.
Enthusiasts claim that primary documents invite the
reader to join a debate, to appreciate different perspectives, to interpret
things from different points of view. Because human affairs are complex,
so the story goes, primary sources prompt the reader to reconsider the
difficulties of interpretation and the pitfalls of inference and generalization.
Some historians imagine that primary sources offer an opportunity to
reflect on how we read and write 'history', they argue that primary
sources insist on a dialogue between the past and present. Other historians
counter with the more modest claim that interrogating historical texts
sharpens our awareness about the negotiable limits (or perhaps the very
possibility) of historical knowledge.
theorists may claim, at a practical level of historical research primary texts require strong
reading skills. Reading, of course, is a ritual for thinking, it is an invitation
to interpret, to exercise critical and creative thought. Strong reading skills balance critical analysis and imaginative insight. Historians aim to justify their interpretations by displaying detailed (hardheaded) analysis and sensitive (often empathetic) appreciation
of cultural difference. Somewhere between there may be
a path connecting 'past and present.'
Concerns in Reading Primary Sources
As we have noted, critical
reading skills are important in coming to grips with primary sources.
Arguably, one text is just like another (at least in Pan-Textual-Land,
where an author's intent might count for little). But historians are
generally less interested in theoretical constraints than making
sense of documents. This, of course, may be a completely naive enterprise.
Without question, it is risky business. Making sense of a document
means making assumptions and risking unfounded inference.
There is ample room for error. But historians have few alternatives.
So we proceed with caution and humility -- and perhaps a hint of
Much of what historians would most like to know
about the past is forever lost. But we are often at a loss
for other reasons. Because the author imagines a different audience,
critical assumptions are habitually left unstated. Important contemporary
ideas and beliefs (perhaps unknown or unsuspected by later readers)
are deemed too obvious for mention. Arguably, the most commonplace
notions are thoughtfully omitted as redundant, too well-known
to identity for a contemporary audience. For the historian,
what is 'absent' is often most telling. For the author, contextual omissions lighten the load, they limit the banal while offering nuance for those in the know. For the historian, primary historical texts
invite discussion of things absent. Readers must be careful about what they "bring to the text" in their interpretation. Understanding the historical context is critical. Readers must aim to see the world as the author and the audience saw it, how it was, how they wished it might be.
Like readers of any text, readers of historical
texts wisely consider the author's assumptions and personal motives.
The assumption here is that writers have a subtext, a web of ideas
and beliefs, stated or unstated, rational or not. To complicate matters,
writers themselves are often unaware of the full measure of
their subtexts, their deepest beliefs are often not fully articulated or easily verbalized. This claim enters into difficult territory.
But the present author would wager that most writers are hard pressed
to provided a detailed map of their reasons and motives for writing.
The more so for writing to their assumed audience.
If the above outline makes sense, the challenge
for readers of primary historical texts is to unravel (and then weave
back together) the text, context, and subtext. At risk of simplification,
the text "then and there" is somehow not the same text confronted
"here and now." The first difference, we might suppose,
is between the "past" and "history" -- arguably
a signature problem with events and texts. In sum, and without apology, a
single sentence: The historical text is usefully approached by situating
it in context (imagining a contemporary audience) in relation to
the subtext (imagining the author's reasons and motives). More complicated yet,
what applies to past authors applies to each reader.
As suggested above, finding historical answers in
textual 'foreign countries' can be difficult. For all that, the interpretation
of primary sources is at the core of the historical enterprise. And
if there is no Royal Road, the journey requires careful preparation
and a ragbag of skills. In practice, framing questions to unravel the
text--to explore 'subtexts'--is often an exercise in imagining the text
in a number of different 'contexts', imagining the author faced with
unspoken possibilities, unplanned contingencies, and unknown consequences.
These games of imagination aim at divining any number of possible meanings
that can be supported by the text. Texts are always negotiable.
the end, clear answers to important questions may not be possible.
Historians are thus invited to provide good 'readings' rather than
indisputable answers. Good readings conform to the text, they are defended by critical analysis
and creative insight. Like any good theory, good readings of primary texts provide
a relatively simple way to account for the greatest complexity. The
best readings account for the widely agreed "facts of the matter"
as well as the most subtle interlinear hints. Most perplexing, the
best readings often address issues unidentified for centuries, frequently enough, good readings were not provided by contemporaries, they may not have been anticipated by the author. These are
several of the more exciting possibilities in reading primary sources. Texts
are continually re-read and re-negotiated.
But enough Thin Theory & Gee Whiz! Consider
the following questions as a practical guide to reading primary texts.
The issue again returns to good reading skills. The Mantra may look
1. Text: What is the argument?
Specifically, what is the author's thesis? The objectives? How does
the structure of the text inform the reader about the thesis and objectives?
Does the author seek to persuade, convince, to identify problems,
to provide a solution? What are the forms of evidence used by the
author? Are they effective? For whom? Are important facts or perspectives
omitted? What is left out? Can you improve the author's case? Could
new evidence be adduced? Could the text be better organized? What
are the 'facts' of the text (stuff most readers might agree upon)
and can they be verified? Is the primary text consistent with what
you have read in other primary texts? In other 'secondary sources'?
What does the text seem to reveal that is not central to the author's
purpose (for example, what may seem unremarkable to the author may
be revealing to a modern reader.) Is the author credible -- to whom?
Explain. Does the author attempt to be objective, impartial, neutral?
Does the author consider alternative positions and perspectives? Does
the author acknowledge prejudice or personal interest? Is there an
ax to grind? Are 'opponents' mentioned, either by name or by school
or by tradition? Provide examples of an interpretation made by the
author and compare it with what you think represents an 'indisputable
fact' found in the text. What arguments and evidence do you have for
your claims? How could you make your interpretations more persuasive?
Context: What kind of document is it? A diary, manuscript treatise,
letter, printed document? Was it published--when and where? Who is the
author and what position, role, reputation, status, did the author have
at the time of writing? Is the author well-known today? At the time
of writing? Who is the intended audience? Who read this text at the
time? What were the responses? What was to be gained and what were the
risks in writing this text? How is this document related to other primary
documents known to you, particularly from the same time period? Does
this document square with what you know from secondary sources? What
evidence do you have for your claims about the text? Be specific.
Subtext: What does the text assume on the part of the reader?
What has the author knowing assumed (consciously, rationally, purposefully),
what has the author silently presupposed (perhaps unconsciously, or
perhaps to spare the audience from the obvious)? What intellectual assumptions
has the author made? Do you think the author aware of these assumptions?
What personal motives are there in writing this piece, that is, why
was it written? Can you distinguish between the author's purpose and
the author's motives, that is, between reasons stated and unstated,
and statements that suggest other unspoken factors (causes vs. effects;
reasons vs. actions; statements that may betray distinctions crudely
distinguished by conscious vs. unconscious)? Was the purpose of the
writing to convince, persuade, motivate? Was the writing a call to action,
to change ideas, beliefs, behaviors? Is the structure based on defining
and presenting a problem/solution? Is there a school or genre or tradition
to which the author belongs? Is there an ax to grind? Is the author
straightforward in presenting information and arguments? What rhetorical
devices are employed? What does the author assume? What preconceptions
(which may not be perfectly clear to the author) seem evident? Identify
these unstated aspects (as you interpret them) and other assumptions,
presupposition, and possible motives not stated in the text. What evidence
and arguments do you have for your interpretations and your claims?
It's-Your-Text: Themes & Patterns: Primary texts sometime
work together to form a pattern and a set of themes. Here the usual
concern is to look for similarity and difference. Primary texts can
be made to speak to continuity and discontinuity, to coherence and correspondence,
to chaos and contradiction. As you read texts from the same time period
dealing with similar topics, identify recurrent themes as well as differences
of assumption, approach, and opinion. If there are distinct differences,
are there similarities in the difference? How do the texts present and
defend their views? Are there similarities in method and approach? Why
are some texts more compelling than others?
Be prepared to explain your views and defend your
interpretations using the text itself. Be prepared (with exact page
numbers) to read the relevant passages outloud and have your arguments
ready. Be self-conscious about your own assumptions and motives. Be
clear about your own methods and approach. What criteria would you use
to evaluate the 'truth value' of a primary text? How would you judge
the relative credibility of two different sources? Can a primary source
be 'valuable' without being 'credible' or 'reliable'? What can be said
about the reliability of an author? What can be said about the 'truth-value'
of a text? Be clear: What does this ongoing exercise tell you about
'writing history' and the enterprise of 'telling the truth'?