Analyzing Historical Sources


A lot of time in the world and in history when we hear something, whether it’s the news or it’s a primary or secondary source. Most of the time we just instantly think that it is a hundred percent right, but that might not always be the case. A primary source is an actual record that has survived from the past. It must be a first hand account from an eyewitness. Examples for this include: letters, pictures, autobiographies, and diaries. There is also a secondary source, which is a second hand account from the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. All secondary sources are based off of primary sources. These include a biography, and a the best example of all, a History text book.

Archaeologists and historians like to use primary sources more than secondary sources. This is because: primary sources are more dramatic, the personal impact is greater, they were actually an eye witness and it can (but not always) be accurate.

There are also disadvantages to using a primary source. The primary sources usually have a narrow focus in perspective. This means that the primary source is focused on only what they see, hear, etc. instead of what others around them see or hear. Another downside to using a primary source is that if the primary source is older, then the accuracy tends to fail or not be a 100% accurate. For example, if an old black slave was interviewed when she was eighty and she hadn’t talked about her slave life before, you would have to question the accuracy. Could her memory have failed over time if she hadn’t talked about it? Was she lying to make things more interesting for the younger readers?

Although historians prefer to use primary sources, there are advantages to using secondary sources too. One of these advantages is that the secondary source is that it has a broader perspective. It’s not just one person’s viewpoint, but many people’s viewpoints. A secondary source is also useful because the statistics are usually correct.

Some disadvantages to using secondary sources are that it’s not as interesting. Not many people go into a History class and say, “I can’t wait to read about the Civil War from a historian’s point of view!” It’s more fun to read something that someone wrote at the time of the event. Another down point of using secondary sources is that there is less emotion compared to the primary source. The author of a textbook usually does write with feeling and emotion; the textbook is usually a totally neutral source.

So with the thought of information going around and how it might be not true, you might want to investigate or analyze historic events. Within primary sources there are a few rules. The first rule is the Time and Place Rule. This is a rule you should use when analyzing primary sources. This helps you find the quality of the source. This rule says the closer in time and in place a source is to the actual event, that the more accurate the source will be. This is found to be true for all the influences that will effect a source. Some of these influences are:
· Religion
· Health (includes memory loss, drug usage, disease)
· Your mood on that day
· Medications
· Their culture
· Race

There is another rule that you must keep in mind when you are analyzing a source. This rule is called the Bias Rule. The Bias rule states that every source has a bias, or a point of view or opinion, on everything so therefore, it is not a totally neutral source.

One thing you need to know about analyzing Historical sources is that there is a bias to every source so you must consider if it is true or if it is just some person's opinion or story. There are so many people who think that some thing is true but really its not true for example there is a painting of the Iraq war with blackish clouds for smoke, and it was published in the news paper, someone found out that it was just a picture a man had made on a photo editor. When you look at some site that says that it’s a first hand account you can’t just say that its true, you have to look at the other side of the document, and then determine your opinion about the article or picture.

Historians believed that they would be able to know the exact truth, but a man named Charles Beard believed that everybody has a “Frame of Reference”. This means that nobody can know the exact truth, but you can come very close to knowing the truth. People’s biases also affect historical sources. Our Facts vs. Interpretations affect our “Frame of Reference” also. We can know all the facts, but because of our interpretations we will never know the exact truth.

As we have already seen in the previous section, we know that a primary source is an actual record that has survived from the past. A small example for now would be the Declaration of Independence. This document is the original document that people wrote in our country’s past. This document has not been changed since then, and no one has tried to re-word it or change it at all. It is a straight up source. A secondary source is a source that is based on a primary source. It might have been put in different wording, had different perspective on it, had a little bit more or less, and there might even be some false information put in the document. This is why we can’t trust a secondary source as much as a primary source. It is not always true that a secondary source cannot be trusted, or even that a primary source is always accurate, but it tends to be that way. A small example of a secondary source would be your text book. Your text book is based on many primary sources and it also may be based on other secondary sources. The bright side of having a secondary source is that there is much more information on a subject that is secondary. You will get more opinions that way. However, it tends to be plainer, and less detailed than a primary source. A primary source tends to have more feeling in it.

As we have shared, when looking at a source, we cannot always assume it to be true. We have to analyze it more. We have to ask our self questions about what we are looking at. A good rule to help us with this is the Time and Place Rule. This rule says the closer the source that we are looking at is to that place, and that time, the more accurate it tends to be. I say “tends” because people can still use their imagination, and exaggerate the story, or the picture a little bit to make it seem more dramatic, or for various other reasons.

One more VERY important thing that we have to consider when analyzing a historical source is to ask our self if it is biased or not. We, being humans, have our own opinion, and some people are more opinionated than others. We then put our own bias on our own sources. This could be because of our religion, past experiences, race, gender, age, political group, etc. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on! We put our own opinions in the source because we all have different beliefs, and may look at certain things differently than others do.

Now I am going to give you some big examples that we can look at. Ask yourself these questions when looking them over:
*Is there bias?
*What does the Time and Place Rule say about this picture/ article?
*Does this seem to be a primary, or secondary source?

external image reutershv9.jpgThis is a picture of a fire that happened in a city. This city is Beirut . It looks pretty bad! Do you think it is real? The answer is no. What questions can you ask yourself to see if it is real or not? Try these:
· What area is it in? Does this area usually have fires? Is it common for a wild fire to happen in a big city?
· Does the smoke and the fire look real?

I automatically look at the smoke. It is unusually dark in some areas. Also, it is unusually sunny in the places that are not hit with the fire. Would this usually be like this if a real fire started? In Photoshop (an editing program), people can add things (in this case, smoke) to make things different. This is also used when looking at historical photos. People could have painted it differently for many reasons. Were they racist? What do they believe? What gender are they? Where and when is the picture taken? We always have to ask ourselves these questions when looking at historical sources. Not only pictures, but almost anything in the news and in history.