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.



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