History is the past. Historiography is interpretation. Historians discover sources and interpret their value in many ways. In this exercise, you will describe and assess a primary source, accessed remotely over the internet. We ask that you produce a good description and assessment rather than the right description and assessment, as all historical understanding is subject to debate.
Please submit a +/-500-word paper, both as a paper copy and digitally (in MS Word or a compatible format), via Moodle; double-spaced and printed in a size 12 font (preferably Times New Roman or Garamond). The title of your paper should be a basic description of the artifact or document in question.
Include your full name and NIUB on the cover page, as well as your surname beside the page number in the footer (at the bottom of the page).
The due date for this assignment is the date of the official, final exam. Make sure your paper reaches your instructor before the end of the time set aside for the exam, as both a digital and a paper document.
What is a Primary Source?
Simply put, a primary source was made around the time of the event or phenomenon for which it serves as evidence. The longer the span of time between event and report, or the longer the chain of informants between event and report, the more questionable the source, in terms of value: but as sources are also evidence of attitudes and assumptions, immediacy and proximity are not always key criteria.
Let’s say you want to know what is was like to live in a working-class district in Birmingham in 1920. You are interested in material conditions: heat, toilets, whether the water was safe. Letters, diaries, and photographs would be great primary sources for this topic. The BBC series Peaky Blinders would be a secondary source, of lesser importance.
Let’s say you want to know about attitudes towards West Indian newcomers in London in the 1960s, especially among older immigrant communities. For this sort of topic, the range of primary sources includes interviews and culture, such as television sit-coms.
Here’s a list of primary source types or categories:
• Memoirs and autobiographies (both are memory and self-portrait)
• Official printed materials (census reports, royal commission reports, court records, Hansard, etc.)
• Press reports (especially newspapers)
• Unpublished official records (government memos and correspondence, minutes of meetings, oaths)
• Church records (especially those of church courts, which handled cases involving morality and sexuality)
• Unpublished local government records (e.g. police investigations)
• Business and other institutional records (e.g. textile factories and wine importers)
• Private papers (especially private correspondence)
• Creative works (jewelry, graffiti, clothing, music, vernacular architecture)
• Oral history (especially interviews that you yourself conduct)
How Does One Find and Choose a Primary Source?
A list of digital repositories will be made available to you via Moodle in the first weeks of the course. For linguistic artifacts, anything typed will be easier than a hand-written source; and more recent history is generally easier to supply, by way of context, than older history.
Questions Your Essay Should Answer
Your paper should answer a selection of the following questions. Choose a subset that seems of greatest interest and relevance.
• What is the form and material of the source? If a document, can you tell if the medium—paper, in most cases—is expensive or cheap? If a manuscript document, does the handwriting suggest a well-educated individual used to writing a lot? Or a semi-educated person who perhaps wrote less often?
• Why was this artifact or document made? Does it convey an explicit message? What was the maker’s purpose in making it?
• What methods are used in trying to convey the message?
• What do you know about the maker? Consider sex, status, wealth, job, religion, region, education, and politics. Is this profile important? If so, why?
• Who was the artifact or document meant for? Who was expected to read it, look at it, or otherwise encounter it? Was it intended for one person, or for the public in general?
• What does the maker choose to deal with/present in the artifact or document? What is the maker silent about—that is, is there anything you expect to find but do not?
• Is your source prescriptive—about what someone wanted to happen—or descriptive—about what someone thought had happened or was happening?
• Does your source describe behaviour? Does it convey an ideology or set of beliefs?
• Does your source relate to an elite? To ordinary people? To a cross-section of people? Whose point of view does it convey?
• Does your source answer any questions about history? Why is it valuable to use this sort of source?
• How can your source be related to an historian’s interpretation of a topic, or of other sources like yours? Can your source be used to challenge or modify an historian’s analysis of the past?