U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Original Historical Sources" rather than primary or secondary

Have you ever tried to explain what a primary source is in intellectual history? If you concentrate on this kind of object is and this kind of object is not, it can get very confusing, especially if you are studying historiography or how history has been taught. A textbook suddenly goes from a “tertiary” source to a primary one.

I had an excellent article handed to me this week, Keith C. Barton, “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” Phi Delta Kappan (June 2005): 745-753. Barton argues that we should do away with “primary” and “secondary” classifications of sources precisely for this confusion.

Note the intellectual history nature of his examples: “The nature of a source does not derive from the kind of object it is (i.e., a letter versus a textbook), but from the purpose it serves in a historical investigation. If a historian (or a history student) wants to know how textbooks of the 1940s portrayed interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in the 18th century, then those textbooks are primary sources; for information on the interactions themselves, however, they are by no means primary. Similarly, if we want to know what George Washington thought about British treatment of prisoners of war, his letters are primary sources, but if we want to know how those soldiers actually were treated, the same letters are secondary sources. The simple fact that a document is a textbook or a letter provides no indication of whether it should be classified as primary or secondary.” (750)

He suggests that instead, we stop trying to make the distinction between secondary and primary and instead use a phrase like “original historical sources.”

To encourage you to read the article, let me quote the myths and Barton’s suggestions for using primary sources, after the jump.

1. Primary sources are more reliable than secondary sources.
2. Primary sources can be read as arguments about the past.
3. Historians use a ‘sourcing heuristic’ to evaluate bias and reliability.
4. Using primary sources engages students in authentic historical inquiry.
5. Students can build up an understanding of the past through primary sources.
6. Primary sources are fun.
7. Sources can be classified as ‘primary’ or ‘secondary.’

Unique contributions of original historical sources for teaching
1. To motivate historical inquiry.
2. To supply evidence for historical accounts.
3. To convey information about the past.
4. To provide insight into the thoughts and experiences of people in the past.

“Effective use of original historical sources requires careful attention to their educational purposes. Each of the myths in this article derives from the assumption that analyzing sources constitutes an end in itself….”

I am going to bring a mammy doll into my class on Monday and ask what we can learn from it and how we should interpret it. (The little white “chile” head fell out in transportation). I’m hoping that students will recognize the lack of context that they need, so that I can then whip out the book “Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping” and give a brief lecture. But I want to start by just setting the doll on the desk, reading its inscription, passing it around, and asking what students think. The disconnect between what seems obvious, mostly to white students, (ahhhhh, a nice old woman holding a little white “chile”), and what incredible damage dolls like this, in aggregate, did and continue to do is one of the things that got me interested in history. The realization–ohhhhhh, I understand now why it is an injustice!–was a powerful one. I hope, though, that by opening up the field to discussion without first contextualizing, I do not put too much burden on the couple of black students in the class to explain what is wrong with the doll (since I am guessing they might have more context for understanding the stereotype). We’ll see how it goes! I’m also going to show a clip from Duck Soup and go through the same set of questions to analyze it. Perhaps I should show the film first, as a less potentially explosive source, and then move to the mammy doll.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren: Great piece! I love how you’ve applied this to our subfield. In my view, the primary-secondary source distinction is a useful fiction meant primarily for the teaching context. Professional historians don’t waste a lot of time talking to each other about whether a document is a primary or secondary source. Aside from teaching, it may be that publishers use that terminology—primarily because marketers serve as an adjunct to the teaching profession in that they use the latest terminology to sell books folks who have learned to love history. In sum, just about everything we do as historians is relative—to a situation involving time, place, audience, and the questions we ask of the material in front of us. – TL

  2. FYI: I went looking for the Barton article right away–since it sounds perfect for my students who are working to become history teachers. It’s from “Phi Delta Kappan,” not “History Teacher.”

  3. Tim: What you say about publishers brought to mind the persistence of the distinction in bibliographies for books. Usually one sees the sources listed divided into primary and secondary categories, in that order. When there is a bibliography, that is. When I was just starting grad school a prof wrote on the works cited page on one of my papers an admonition that I had to list primary and secondary sources separately. She was pretty old school, though. I think most historians learn that the context is really what determines what the source is, as Lauren mentions.

  4. Very interesting! As a secondary education teacher this was very eye opening to read, testing my previous understand of what is necessary. Recently primary sources in my classroom have been used to enhance students skills in inferences, however these are the same processes now being used when reading/studying from the textbook. This article provoked interesting conversations amongst my colleagues; those who argued for the differentiation of the two styles believed it is useful to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources when for reading, arguing it takes a different level of reading skills or comprehension skills. Thank you for sharing and opening up a discussion on this topic.


    Rachel Adams


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