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Primary Sources / Secondary Sources [Humanities]
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Primary Sources / Secondary Sources [Humanities]


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An attempt to distinguish PRIMARY from SECONDARY sources. …

An attempt to distinguish PRIMARY from SECONDARY sources.
* Source Matrix: Artistic (Primary/Secondary) - Scientific (Primary/Secondary)
* Types of Sources

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  • 1. History involves the study of the past (NOTE THOUGH: the past cannot be studied ‘first hand’) In order to find out WHAT happened in the past it is necessary to USE ‘Sources of Information’ that provide INFORMATION/DATA about the past.
  • 2. Sources of Information PRIMARY (sources from the past) SECONDARY (sources produced later and based on primary sources) PRIMARY or SECONDARY source is not a particularly useful “distinction” as it is a simplistic one. It can lead to rash judgments about the utility (usefulness) of the source. How so? To say that ‘Source A’ is reliable because it is a PRIMARY SOURCE or that ‘Source B’, a SECONDARY SOURCE, is unreliable because its author was not there at the time is simply a “distinction” of convenience.
  • 3. Remember: • No ‘Source of Information’ can speak for itself. • No ‘Source of Information’ should be taken on ‘face-value’. • Whatever ‘Sources of Information’ have ‘to say’ depends on the questions asked of them. The three (3) basic questions that ought to be asked are the 3Ws. • Who? • When? • Where? This leads you to the important question of motivation: WHY? If you are not given the ‘who?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’ information ,then you should be making comments about the PROVENANCE (attribution) of the source; unless you are given this information, how can you be sure that the source is AUTHENTIC? Considering the type of SOURCE, the 3Ws taken together should allow you to make comments on both the RELIABILITY and USEFULNESS (value) of the SOURCE.
  • 4. General Consideration PROVENANCE (attribution) ‘The place of origin or earliest known history of something.’ The 3Rs The 3Ws • Revealing? • Quantity • Quality • Who? • When? • Where? WHY? CONTENT • Factual? • Empathetic? • Objective? • Interpretive? • Complete? • Mediated? • Corroborated? • Bias? • Reliable? • Provenance • Content • Relevant?
  • 5. Beyond Primary and Secondary Sources It is not enough to be aware that sources might be either PRIMARY or SECONDARY. Studying ‘History’ is difficult because to be successful we require a wide range of skills. ‘History’ is a subject that is both a: • Human Science like Economics • and an Art like Literature. In order to make sense of the past we use the methodology of both the scientist and the artist. AN EXAMPLE Poverty in the French Second Republic To EXPLAIN the extent of poverty in the French Second Republic we may best be able to do this by analysing the economic statistics from the period. To UNDERSTAND what it was like to be poor then we are best off reading the novels of Emile Zola.
  • 6. Beyond Primary and Secondary Sources In short, if our concern is: Human Motivation • We might turn to the sensibility of the novelist, the poet, the writer. An Appreciation of the Personal and the Particular OR for Understanding Emotion and Appreciating Atmosphere • We would be better off studying the music or painting from the time. An Objective, General Comparative Analysis of Change over Time and Place • We then would require the statistician’s facility with numbers and logic.
  • 7. Beyond Primary and Secondary Sources To understand the usefulness of sources in general it may not be as simplistic as labelling them as: • PRIMARY or • SECONDARY but rather using the terms PRIMARY or SECONDARY as categories that need further analysis. We need that ‘extra dimension’ that extends into the Artistic and Scientific aspects of the Source to better ‘weigh out’ is Reliability and Utility (Usefulness). * A Source Matrix * PRIMARY SECONDARY ARTISTIC SCIENTIFIC
  • 8. * A Source Matrix * PRIMARY These sources at the top of the Matrix are what the PAST left behind. They are sources produced by people who lived in the PAST, that come to us UNMEDIATED (unchanged) by the passage of time. SECONDARY These sources at the bottom of the Matrix are produced by people who are INTERPRETING the past for their own reasons. They are often produced a long time after the events that they are describing. ARTISTIC These sources that appear on the left of the Matrix are typically produced through an artistic medium such as poetry or film. Their main value is EMPATHETIC. They help us imagine what it was like to live in the PAST and why people thought and behaved the way they did. SCIENTIFIC These sources that appear on the right of the Matrix are less imaginative and more factual. Government statistics concerning changing population or lists of legislation are typical of this type of source. There main value is OBJECTIVITY.
  • 9. Types of Sources Cartoons Heritage Historian Literary Art Maps and Plans Memoirs News Sources Official Sources Oral History Private Sources Statistics Visual Art
  • 10. Bibliography, Resources, Webography Defining Primary and Secondary Sources by Michael Eamon What is a Primary Source? The Difference between Primary and Secondary Sources Assembled: A. Ballas