Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 2 of 10

A note on terminology

Teachers and textbooks often refer to “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” but this is a misleading distinction. Primary sources are sometimes thought of as being directly connected to the historical time period or event being studied; this would include letters or diaries written by people at the time, artwork from the time, government documents, and so on. Secondary sources are thought of either as later interpretations (e.g., the accounts in scholarly articles or textbooks) or as the work of others who were not present (e.g., hearsay from someone who did not directly witness an event).

The problem with this distinction is that educators often conclude that a source can be classified as either primary or secondary without regard to how it is used. But any source can be a primary source, depending on what purpose it serves. Consider a newspaper article from 1950 about the Maria Hertogh riots: primary or secondary? This comes from the time of the event, so it seems like a primary source, but the reporter may not have been present and instead based the article on the words of others—that makes it seem like a secondary source. The reality is that it can be either, depending on the question that is asked of it. If we want to know what happened, it is a secondary source (assuming the reporter was not present). However, if we want to know how newspapers in 1950 covered the event, then it is clearly a primary source—a direct example of what we want to know about.

Similarly, imagine a school textbook from the 1960s about British colonialism in the 19th century. Most people would quickly identify such an account as a secondary source, since it was written long after the event and its author did not directly experience the events. If we wanted to know about British colonialism, this textbook would indeed be a secondary source. However, if we wanted to know how British colonialism was portrayed in the 1960s, then it would be a primary source—it provides direct insight into how people wrote about the topic at the time that we are interested in. All sources are like this—their status as “primary” or “secondary” changes based on what use we put them to. As a result, using a more neutral term like “original historical sources” may help us avoid these confusions.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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