International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Types of historical sources and their utility

History involves the study of the past and yet the past cannot be studied 'first hand'. In order to find out what happened, it is necessary to use sources of information that provide information about the past.  Typically teachers divide these sources into primary and secondary sources, in other words those sources that were produced in the past (primary) and those that were produced later and based on the primary sources (secondary). Conceptually this is not a particularly useful distinction and can lead students to make some rather rash judgements about the utility of sources based on whether they are 'primary' or 'secondary': 'source X is reliable because it is a primary document' or 'source Y cannot know for certain because the author wasn't there at the time.'

How useful depends on the question we ask

Nothing is inherently useful. The usefulness of a source always depends on the questions you ask of it. The Bayeux Tapestry is an extremely valuable source about 11th century warfare, but not much use as evidence about the Normandy landings of June 1944. When considering the usefulness of a source it is always important to consider the 3 Rs. Does the source provide Relevant information in answer to the question? Does the source provide an especially Revealing - incisive, comprehensive, detailed, rare - insight into the question? And in the end can we trust it to provide a Reliable perspective on the question?

The twelve types of source - strengths and weaknesses

Twelve is a significant number historically, so I have decided there are 12 types of historical source. More practically the 12 types also reflect the most common forms to be found on an exam paper. Click on the following links to find out more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of these 12 types of historical source.

This is a useful detailed document that also provides examples of the value of different types of sources.

Beyond primary and secondary

A more useful binary framework for assessing the usefulness of sources is to consider sources as either broadly scientific or artistic. Or as the great Dr. Bronowski once argued history seeks to bring 'together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science'. History is unusual as an academic subject, in so far as it is considered to be 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 artist and the scientist. For example, if our concern is understanding human motivation, we might turn to the sensibility of the novelist. For an appreciation of the personal and the particular, or for understanding emotion and appreciating atmosphere, what could be better than studying the music or painting from the time? But if our concern is an objective, general comparative analysis of change over time and place, then we require the statistician's facility with numbers and logic.

This is part of what makes the study of history difficult. If we are to be successful, we require an unusually wide range of skills. In short, a history student may best be able to explain the extent of poverty in the French Second Republic by analyzing the economic statistics from the period. But if we want to understand what it was like to be poor then we are best off reading the novels of Emile Zola.

To understand the useful of sources in general, therefore, it is not enough to enough to be aware that sources might be primary or secondary, we need the extra dimension that may be provided by the source matrix.

A source matrix

Sources that appear to the left of the diagram are typically produced through an artistic medium such as poetry or film. Their main value is empathetic. They help us to imagine what it was like to live in the past, to understand why people thought and behaved the way that they did.

Sources on the right of the diagram are less imaginative and more factual. Government statistics concerning changing population or lists of legislation are typical of this type of source.  Their main value is objectivity.

Sources that appear at the top of the diagram are what the past has left behind. They are sources produced by people who lived in the past, that come to us unmediated or unchanged by the passage of time.

Sources that appear at the bottom of the diagram 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.

See an example of an activity based on the source matrix model.


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