Primary Sources

“Go back to the sources.”

‘What does the original say?”

“You need more primary sources.”

All those words that make historians mumble in our beer and other drinks, or commiserate over bad-for-us meals. “I’ve looked at everything that’s available.” “The archive closed and no one is allowed to look at those papers.” “Yes, it’s been digitized, but they chopped off the margin notes and those are just as important.”

One of the emphases on the Advanced Placement exams is use of primary sources. These are the original documents, accounts from the time, and data from the time. Students are given a question, and a set of short readings, and have to write an essay drawing from the texts and what they remember from class. “Thinking like a historian” it is called. I cannot repeat what I suspect some of my students call it when they are not around adults. I’ve said those words too, usually when I turn one page too many and find something that completely shoots down my nice tidy hypothesis. Real life is such a downer some days.

Primary sources are both blessing and curse. They provide a trove of information, provided you can sort through the pig littler to find the pearl. And there are mountains of pig litter. Or worse, lots of fascinating things that you can’t use but that you want to stop and read and make notes on because that is so cool and so what if you only have three more hours with the documents and can’t come back for a month? No, I’ve never been in that position, just heard about it. Really. On the other hand, while skimming through all that pig litter, you may find something that you were not looking for but that opens up something very valuable. And that you will spend another week or so of your precious archive time tracking down. No, that’s never happened to me either.

Today, a lot of sources are digitized. This is both good and bad. It means you can read Medieval and even documents from the late antiquities/ Dark Ages without having to go to the Vatican archives, or to Bavaria, or other places. It means you can quickly find exactly what Parliament debated on that topic, if you know how and where to look. It also means you can find a lot of dross, documents without context, and close-but-not quite things. You also can find really bad translations and editions of things that are rather different in the original, without knowing it. There’s a reason for going to the first text if you have the ability and resources and there’s a question.

So I’m trying to 1) teach students how to read English-language primary sources and 2) use those to answer a question. Right away I have to deal with convincing very busy young people to slow down and read carefully rather than skimming. And to chew and apply what they’ve read, instead of just copying chunks as an answer. Since I read books where historians do the same thing, I try not to growl too much. It is so easy to copy the original, point at it, and move on with the assumption that the reader will also read the writer’s mind and understand everything surrounding the passage. That’s a good way to get bitten, both as a writer and reader.

Happily for me, I have found several web sites with very good, well-organized and vetted collections of primary source excerpts suitable for just this exercise. If only the archives were so easily navigated. I still get the shivers thinking about those cross-written letters in dark blue ink on light blue paper, where the ink bled through, and trying to make sense of the (horrible) handwriting. I managed three hours a day before my headaches got to me. But once I cracked the “code,” oh the wealth of material I found! And then there was the ranch manager who used Medieval numbers and bits of Gaelic in his reports . . .

I won’t sic those on my students.