History can be simply explained as an exploration of the past. In order to explore the past, historians will investigate many sources from a period of time in an attempt to find the answers they seek. Accordingly, there exists a close relationship between the historian and their sources, but it is not one of unblinking trust or loyalty. Sources can misrepresent and they can lie, therefore the historian must be critical when analysing their sources for how they represent the past. History can also be explained, with more complexity, as a particular way of seeing the past: a point of view constructed by the historian. This essay will introduce you to the types of sources historians use, and how the sources are used to craft an interpretation of the past.
First, we can address the question: what is history? Brundage encourages us not to think of history as a passive, static discipline, but as a “dynamic process” (2017, p. 1). History is not (or should not be) a bland record of dates and figures; it is an exciting, lively debate about the past and past events. This 101 series defines history as a dialogue between facts of the past, perspectives of the present, and visions of the future. When thinking about the writing of history, it is useful to think in the framework of Brundage’s definition of history as an “evolving, intellectual system” (2017, p. 2). As we will see throughout the series, the way history has been recorded and written has changed dramatically over the years. This is known as historiography (Brundage 2017, p. 16). More explicitly, historiography can be defined as “works of history that seek to shape opinion about a particular aspect of the past” (Cullen 2016, p. 23). Over the course of this series, we will engage with different practices within the “evolving, intellectual system” of history to see how written histories shape our perspective of the past.
Another important question to ask is what do we want to find out through history? Scheuler identifies that we want to access the “ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of people in the past” through historical inquiry (2014, p.165). When we study historiography, we are therefore trying to access how people’s relationship to the past has changed and evolved. Brundage recognises history as a discipline that “imposes pattern and meaning” on past events (2017, p. 132). Engaging with historiography therefore allows us to expose these “patterns and meanings”. Before we explore the different types of history, we must consider the following: what are the sources of historical inquiry? And how do we use them to form these “patterns and meanings”?
The most important part of any good history writing is the selection of sources. Cullen viscerally describes sources as the “very tissue” of your historical analysis (2016, p. 22). There are two main categories of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are critical to original historical research. They are the “raw materials” of history, or in other words, the first hand-accounts of the past (e.g., diary entries, official policy documents, newspaper articles written at the time under study, and so on) (Brundage 2017, p. 17; Cullen 2016, p. 22). For example, if you wanted to research the Suffragette movement, the image [below left] of a Votes For Women newspaper from 1911 would be a primary source. Written works, such as a book [below right] on the topic of study, in this scenario would be used as a secondary source. Secondary sources are the interpretations of historical events (Cullen 2016, p. 23). These are typically the works of other historians, such as books or essays; and even films can be a source of history. These sources are good for contextualising the period of study. It is best to use a combination of primary and secondary sources in your historical research, that way you engage in a direct dialogue with the past, with perspectives in the present, to build you analysis.
It is important to be aware that the difference between primary and secondary sources is not always clearly distinguished. Scheuler argues that a “rigid classification of primary and secondary sources”, such as the aforementioned explanation, can “distort and misrepresent” the information in the source and the interpretation the researcher makes of it (2014, p. 164). What makes a source primary or secondary is not necessarily the time it was created in, but how the source is being used to address the question the researcher has asked. As Scheuler dictates, a source is defined by “the purpose it serves in a historical investigation” (2014, p. 64). This means that primary sources can also be secondary sources, and vice versa, depending on the questions asked. For example, returning to the Votes For Women newspaper, the image shows an illustrated scene of the Magna Carta, a revolutionary document in British history that limited the power of the King. If the research project was about the Magna Carta, and how the popular memory of the Magna Carta has been evoked throughout British history, this newspaper would become a secondary source, as it provides commentary on the primary event of study. Using sources in historical inquiry is therefore not without its challenges. Once you have identified your sources, you need to know how to analyse them.
History has an agenda. This agenda is usually recognised as the dirty word ‘bias’. All sources, be they primary or secondary, are biased towards a certain point of view, whether it is noticed by the author of the source or not. For the historian, it is important to be aware of bias and recognise how a source’s bias will influence the use of the source as evidence. When analysing the bias of a source, some important questions to ask are: what is the source? Who wrote the source, and why did they write it? A troubling question for the historian is: if all sources are biased, can we achieve truth in history? Furthermore, what do we mean by ‘truth’ in history? Brundage suggests that “truth in history resides in those ascertainable facts that make up the superstructure of any historical account” (2017, p. 132). These “ascertainable facts” can include objective data such as dates and figures, for example the recorded date of a royal coronation, or economic statistics. The interpretation of these facts that we see in works of history cannot be considered an objective truth. But rather than looking at this as problematic, we can recognise that the value of history lies in its diversity and the open discourse it engages between the past, present and future.
The foundation of any good historical work is a rigorous examination of the sources. While the historian's task does not lead to an objective truth, their interpretations offer us unique ways of seeing the past, and its relationship to the present. Indeed, history is best described as a dialogue between the past, present and future. Knowing your sources, and how to analyse them, will allow you to participate meaningfully in this dialogue.
Career as a historian. (n.d.-b). [Photograph montage]. GetEducated. https://www.geteducated.com/career-center/best-jobs-for-history-majors/.
The British Library Board. (1911). Title image from ‘Votes for women’, a suffragette newspaper. [Photograph]. The National Archives. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/magna-carta/suffragette-newspaper/.
The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866–1928. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/The-British-Womens-Suffrage-Campaign-1866-1928-Revised-2nd-Edition/Smith/p/book/9781408228234.
Wolstenholme, J. & Bridgeman Images. (2006). A Literary Joust [Image]. History Today. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/making-history/open-access-closed-minds.
Brundage, A. (2017). Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing (6th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.
Cullen, J. (2016). Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (3rd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.
Scheuler, S. (2014). Primary and Secondary Sources in History: A Primer for Undergraduates, Challenges for Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 55(2), 163–167. https://doi.org/10.1080/02763877.2014.881274.