Beyond Writing: Objects as Primary Sources

When historians talk about primary sources, they tend to mean documents: written artifacts of public processes (e.g., census and tax records, trial transcripts, wills, debates and speeches) or written records kept by private persons (e.g., letters, diaries, memoirs). Important as they are, such sources have important limitations.

Above all, they tend to reflect the perceptions and priorities of the most educated and (generally) most powerful members of any society.

Consider this chart, which shows the estimated literacy rate for the world’s population going back to 1800:

Graph of world literacy, 1800-2014

In 1800 only one person in eight knew how to read and write. A century later it was one in five. Despite rapid advances in education in the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a majority of humans alive were literate. And even today, 15% of the population stands no chance of producing a written source for future historians (unless their lives are documented by those who are literate). That number is even higher in the Global South.

To some extent, historians have filled this gap through oral history projects (e.g., check out these slave narratives, recorded between 1932 and 1975) or by learning to interpret the oral traditions of premodern societies.

But increasingly, historians are exploring the potential of objects as primary sources: everyday items that reveal something of the lives of those who used them. For example, curators at the British Museum developed a popular series called “The History of the World in 100 objects.” Or read this recent blog post by a women’s historian who thinks about the political implications of textiles and clothing.

So as you’re curating primary sources for your digital timelines, think outside the box. Perhaps there’s an object or two that you can include alongside the written evidence.


A Sample Timeline… and a Bit of Coding

As an example of how you can use Timeline JS to tell a digital story using narration and primary sources… Click here to see a timeline I produced last February, after the sudden death of long-serving Bethel history and political science professor G.W. Carlson.

One trick I used in that timeline that we didn’t get to yesterday… You can use some simple HTML code to include links in the narrative text and captions. For example, if you wanted to build a link to the Library of Congress into your timeline, you would enter the following text in your spreadsheet:

<a href="">The Library of Congress</a>

Video of Haley’s Talk on Digital Curation

For those who couldn’t be there last Thursday, Haley was kind enough to share a link to the video of her presentation (with Art professor Michelle Westmark Wingard and digital librarian Kent Gerber), on her experience in J-term curating a digital exhibit and her ongoing work with Bethel’s digital library. It certainly dovetails with several of the themes we’re considering this week with our digital history/digital humanities unit.

Finding Primary Sources for Your Digital Project

As you’re putting together your digital timeline this week, remember that each event should “[incorporate] evidence from relevant primary sources — e.g., as a background image, an embedded video, a quotation from a diary or government document, a link to archived materials, etc.” (And that each source should be cited properly, using Turabian’s footnote format.) Given the impact of digitization on the preservation and accessibility of historical evidence in virtually every field, I think it’s reasonable for me to expect any timeline to feature a diverse array of sources.

So where can you find primary sources that are fair use for educational purposes? A few suggestions…

Bethel library research guides

A great place to start is our own library website. In addition to searching using Summon and other databases (and always try adding “primary sources” or “documents” to a search string), our research librarians have been working with faculty for several years to develop Research Guides for different subjects and specific courses. Click here and look under History. Each guide will have links to secondary and primary source collections. (Thanks to Earleen Warner for all her help on these!)

Bethel Library research guide for HIS354 Modern Europe

For example, here’s the top of the Online Primary Sources section of the research guide I put together with Earleen for HIS354 Modern Europe


It’s perfectly fine to use Wikipedia to help facilitate your work. (Again: this is not meant to be a research-intensive project.) Be sure to check any relevant Wikipedia page for a section on “Primary Sources” and “External Links.” To go back to the example I used in our research tutorial, here’s what that looks like for Charles Lindbergh:

Screenshot of Primary Sources and External Links sections for Charles Lindbergh page on Wikipedia

Notice also that, in addition to whatever images are already incorporated into that Wikipedia page, there’s a link for all Lindbergh-related images and other media at the companion Wikimedia Commons. Generally, if such images appear on Wikimedia, you can treat them as fair use for educational purposes. Sometimes you’ll also see a link here to Wikisource, which is an archive of digitized historical documents.


I doubt I’m suggesting anything you haven’t already thought of, but there’s nothing easier than going to Google and typing in a search string that includes your topic and words or phrases like “primary sources,” “documents,” “archives,” “artifacts,” etc.

Also, to find fair use images… Go to Google Images, click on the Tools tab, and limit your search to images “Labeled for noncommercial reuse.”

screen shot of Google Images search for Charles Lindbergh limited to noncommercial use

libraries and museums

Finally, be sure to spend some time browsing the digitized collections of a major library, archive, or museum relevant to your topic. A few that might fit the topics you all are doing for your timelines:

Video Conversation: Collaboration

Before you begin work on your first of two group projects… You might want to watch this short conversation with Profs. Poppinga and Kooistra, on you can effectively collaborate on a shared project.

Working as part of a team is one of the objectives of this course, but it’s not a skill that has often been emphasized in the discipline of history. But that’s starting to change — see this report on a collaboration panel at January’s meeting of the American Historical Association.

Digital History Project

Starting next week, you’ll be working on your first of two group projects. You’ll have until noon on Friday 3/3 to work with 2-3 other HIS290 students to create a digital timeline of a relatively narrow topic in history.

You’ll have the weekend of Feb. 25-26 to form a group; it should be set by the time you show up to class on Monday, 2/27, so that you can use that time well. You can work with people you already know in class, or perhaps come together around a topic of shared interest. (I’ve created a shared Google Doc that you can use to find those who share your interests.)

You have a lot of flexibility here in terms of your choice of topic, but your project must follow these guidelines:

  • Use Timeline JS and Google Sheets to create the timeline. (They’re pretty easy to figure out, but we’ll help you learn these tools in class on Monday 2/27.) Once the timeline is ready, send me a link so I can make it available to the rest of the class, and share the Google spreadsheet with me.
  • This timeline should cover no more than 100 years of history. (If you can convince me that your topic requires a longer period, I’m willing to waive this requirement.)
  • It should be focused on a single, well-defined defined topic within a particular historical era. It can be national, or not, but you need to make it narrow enough that your sequence of events does not leave significant holes. (See the Command criterion below.)
  • Your timeline should include 3-4 events per member of your group, plus a title. (On the spreadsheet you use to create the timeline, it should be clear which group member took primary responsibility for designing each event. We’ll explain this on Monday the 27th.)
  • Each event on the timeline should include concise narration that makes clear its significance (probably either for context or causality) and incorporates evidence from relevant primary sources — e.g., as a background image, an embedded video, a quotation from a diary or government document, a link to archived materials, etc. The sources should be cited appropriately, using Turabian’s footnote format.

For most of class on Friday the 3rd, you’ll have time to explore other groups’ timelines. Then you’ll have until 9amnoon on Monday the 6th to complete (a) an evaluation of the other timelines (5 pts, under Course Participation) and (b) to write a 250-word self-evaluation of your own group’s project, using the Command, Collaboration, and Curation criteria below to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your group’s work (10 pts, under Response Papers).


Your project grade (50 pts) will be based on a mix of instructor and peer evaluation, according to the criteria below. There will be a baseline grade for the group, but individual grades could be higher or lower based on the quality of individual events on the timeline. (Or if it becomes clear that an individual was not an effective member of the team.)

Command: From the design of the timeline (topic, periodization, selection of events and sources) and the quality of narration, it should be clear that you are knowledgeable about whatever topic you pick, both specific details and larger significance.  (15 pts)

(I don’t mean this project to require a great deal of research. Ideally, you’ll select a topic and era you already know fairly well — perhaps because you’ve taken a class on it, or it was the subject of your annotated bibliography — with tertiary sources and general works sufficing to fill in any gaps in knowledge. But the narrower the topic, the more likely you are to demonstrate meaningful knowledge.)

Collaboration: One of the objectives for the course is that you develop skill in working as part of a team. For this assignment, that means is that you should not only contribute individual items to the timeline, but help shape the overall direction of the project and take your share of responsibility for ensuring the overall quality of the work. (This might look different depending on your abilities: if you’re handy with technology and software, help troubleshoot any problems with Timeline JS or Sheets; if you’re a good writer and editor, help others proofread their narration or citations; or help others locate primary sources they can integrate with their events.) So long as each member contributes roughly the same number of events on the timeline, I’ll leave it to the group to define any other roles. (10 pts)

Use of Digital Tools: Pretty straightforward — do you know how to use Google Sheets in tandem with Timeline JS to make a digital timeline? Were there errors in the spreadsheet or timeline? (5 pts)

Curation: In order to share this chapter in history, did you effectively organize and present a series of events and sources? Did you collectively curate an array of primary sources (e.g., photographs, maps, audio or film clips, quotations from documents) that worked together to help reconstruct or reanimate the past in the minds of your readers? (20 pts)

Reading for Digital History Unit

When our digital history unit starts tomorrow, we’ll be considering how digitization does — and doesn’t — change the discipline of history. For example: how do technological changes not only help us to preserve and share primary sources, but give us new ways of analyzing and interpreting them?

To cue you up for that discussion… please take a few minutes to read Barack Obama’s victory speech from Election Night, 2008. Think about it as a kind of primary source: What’s the context for the speech? (Who’s the author? What’s his audience? What’s his purpose? What are the problems and possibilities of such primary sources? (Here’s an essay on how a historian interprets speeches given by pre-Civil War abolitionists.) What words or themes jumped out at you?)

Further Thoughts on Primary Sources

While we’re focused on digital history for the next couple weeks, your upcoming group project will also give you a chance to work some more with different types of primary sources. So I’d thought I’d pick up where Prof. Magnuson left off and share a few ideas to chew on (or to discuss for your blog comment this week).

• In ch. 1 of The First Thanksgiving, Tracy McKenzie describes primary sources as “vestiges of that vanished reality” — that is, the past — “artifacts such as diaries and memoirs, newspapers and correspondence, legal records and census data, architecture and archeological remains” (p. 26).

Gaddis, Landscape of History• Another way to think about how we get primary sources is to liken history to the fields of geology and paleontology, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis does in The Landscape of History. Unlike other scientists, geologists and paleontologists are — like historians — unable to run lab-based experiments in order to test their theories. (Well, outside of Jurassic Park.) Instead, they need to work with the evidence that’s left in stone by the movement of time. “It’s here,” says Gaddis,

that the methods of historians and scientists — at least those scientists for whom reproducibility cannot take place in a laboratory — roughly coincide. For historians too start with surviving structures, whether they be archives, artifacts, or even memories. They then deduce the processes that produced them. (p. 41)

So if we think of primary sources as “structures” produced by historical “processes” that have — unlike most such structures — survived the passage of time…

• It’s worth thinking about the nature of the processes that produce primary sources. Some, like the U.S. Census records that Prof. Magnuson studies, result from political, legal, or bureaucratic processes that are intentionally seeking to preserve evidence of a moment in time. What other types of primary sources are created by such processes? What are the problems and possibilities that come with such documents and other sources?

But many primary sources were never intended to serve such a purpose — they were produced by ordinary human “processes” that unintentionally left behind “structures” that archivists decide to preserve and historians decide to interpret. For example, when I was down at North Park University this week, their 125th anniversary exhibition included physical artifacts — a football from the first game their team won, the bell that rang to announce dinner time for the women’s dorm, the typewriter used by the school’s founder — that were relatively mundane items (in these three cases, mass-produced) resulting from routine processes. But they help us to understand that institution’s past, which otherwise would be lost with the passage of time. What other kinds of primary sources are created in this way? Are they more or less useful than legal or political documents like the Census?

• As a final way of thinking about the nature of historical evidence…

Imagine if someone were to write a history of Bethel, say, fifty years from now. And for some reason, they wanted to understand what happened in HIS290 Intro to History in the third week of February in the year 2017. What evidence would remain of our week in class together? Any artifacts? Anything archive-able?

The processes of our class have produced some structures that might survive, but the evidence would be pretty fragmentary. But remember that Gaddis says that “surviving structures” can include not only archives (that is, intentionally curated collections of evidence) and artifacts (like football helmets and typewriters), but “even memories.” Let’s assume that all of us — well, all of you — are still alive and available to a researcher. How might your memories yield historical evidence? How reliable is such evidence?

History in a Digital Age: Accessibility

One theme from Cohen and Rosenzweig that many of you picked up on in your response papers was that of accessibility, that they expected (rightly, it seems) that digitization would make history (and historical sources) more widely available to more people. Here are Sarah and Collin’s reflections on that theme. Did you resonate with their experiences as you perused other digital history projects? Do you see downsides to — or limits on — accessibility as Cohen and Rosenzweig describe it?

Upon examination of the various collections in Bethel’s digital library, the theme of accessibility continued to define my perception of the merits of the digital displays. Largely composed of primary sources instead of narrative secondary essays, many of the documents and images associated with Bethel’s history are now easily accessible, whereas a few decades earlier, one may not even know where to begin to find a particular publication or image. In the past, finding a particular primary source required a great deal of time and financial investment to travel to the one physical archive of interest (C&R). Despite claims of the new interactive, multilinear, and flexible nature of digital collections, the major peril of increasing passivity is epitomized by narrative attempts found on projects like the Bethel at War project. The nonlinear setup of this website may inhibit the reader’s understanding, as it lacks the opportunity the linear expositions give to truly gain access to the “thoughts and experiences of others” (C&R). The screen format where readers can move quickly from one page to the next of interactive displays tends to put more focus on what individual reader himself is experiencing (C&R). Although written over ten years ago, the majority of the promises and perils still apply today.

– Sarah Sauer

A simple search on the Bethel Archive for “Scandia Baptist Church” will give over one hundred results in the Bethel collection alone, ranging from pictures to the articles in the Clarion. Now anyone doing research can peruse private collections that only a privileged few had access to in the past. Sadly, these advancements in the storage and accessibility has also led to increase in ease of forgery. Programs like Photoshop can easily place someone into a photograph when they were never there. Then it is possible to upload that photo to a database and eventually it could be accepted as true. This seems to go in the opposite direction of idea of historical narratives. Cohen and Rosenzweig predicted a future where historians would have easy access to whatever they needed. As technology continues to develop this is true, but each advancement has its unique constraints.

– Collin Barrett