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?


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