Sources Help historians make sense of what happened in the past. The historians job is to use these sources to reconstruct the past. Historians must examine the sources carefully and ask questions about them. Some of the more important questions they must ask are:
- When was the source written or made?
- Was it at the time of the event or later?
- Who wrote or made the source?
- Why was it written or made?
- What type of source is it?
When was the source written or made?
You must identify what sources are when asking this question. Sources can be either Primary or Secondary
A Primary source is one that comes directly from the time of the event. They are original material. If a historian was studying Hitler in Nazi Germany, they would study photos, speeches and newspaper reports about him from that period.
A Secondary source comes from after the time being studied. An example of this would be your textbook or even this blog! This is because we are writing after the period of the event.
So which is better to use?
Primary sources give us an account of life at the time while secondary sources can give us background information that will help us understand the primary source better. Thus, both are useful to the historian.
Who wrote or made the source?
To find out if the source is reliable we have to find out who wrote it and if their was motive. To learn about Jewish history we wouldn’t rely on the writings of Hitler now would we?…I hope not!
There are a few issues that we need to identify when studying sources I like to call the ‘BPP System’
- Bias: People are bias or show bias when they deliberately select evidence to strengthen their argument and weaken someone else’s.
- Prejudice: This is making up your mind before you know what happened. It is often based on ethnic (racial) or sexual attitudes. People are prejudiced when they ignore evidence.
- Propaganda: This is used to appeal to a person’s feelings in order to promote your point of view and convince people you are right. It often uses information that is deliberately selected or biased. The press, radio and posters can all be used in propaganda. Take a look at this example of Nazi propaganda from WWII. What do you think it’s trying to say?
For more information about the work of the historian or problems with evidence, be sure to check out the topic “Work of the Historian” on this site