Monday, January 4, 2010

Primary and Secondary Sources--and how to tell them apart without ripping out your hair

One of the most challenging aspects of a History Day project is distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. The temptation is to look for a hard-and-fast rule: all newspapers articles are primary, all books are secondary. But what's that old saw? Rules are made to be broken. In the case of deciding what's primary and what's secondary, the most important rule is not about the type of source: It's that students have to contextualize the source, decide if it's primary or secondary, and be prepared to defend their decisions.

So let's review the definitions of primary and secondary sources provided in the NHD Rule Book. A primary source is "that which is written or produced in the time period students are investigating. ...materials directly related to a topic by time or participation." Examples given include diaries, oral histories, photographs, and the like. A secondary source is "usually published books or articles by authors who were not eyewitnesses or participants in the historical event or period..." Secondary sources are interpretations of primary sources.

Sounds easy, right? But let's take autobiographies as an example. On the surface, it seems obvious that autobiographies are a primary source. But what if it's clear from the dust jacket that the actual author is the co-writer credited right under the subject's name? After all, many well-known people use co-writers and instead of doing the writing themselves, record or talk through their memories with the co-writer, who then processes the material into an autobiography. Even if the subject writes his or her own autobiography, it could be 20 or 30 years after the events described. Memory fades and changes. Is the account trustworthy? What's a researcher to do?

First, remember that sources are themselves historical artifacts, bounded by place and time. They need to be considered within their context. Newspaper articles, for example, are often cited as primary sources. But students should keep in mind that a reporter was in a particular place, with a particular agenda, when that story was filed. Are there other points of view that should be considered as well?

Second, keep in mind that the task of the historian is to interpret the source--and to be able to justify that interpretation (that's what the annotation and judge interview are for). And if students learn that no one source contains historical truth, that's an enormous achievement.

Third, consider sources as a pool of information. If the historian's job is to synthesize, then analyze that information, it's tempting to just keep adding sources. After all, there is almost always another source out there. (This, by the way, is how doctoral dissertations never get finished.) But at some point, the researcher has to stop gathering sources and information, and turn to analysis and interpretation. This is when annotation really helps. How did you use this source? Why was it useful? What did you learn? Answering those questions should help students classify sources into primary and secondary--and it should also make clear where gaps in the research exist.

Fourth, be proactive about classification decisions. If a student lists an autobiography under secondary sources, he or she must explain that decision, both in the annotation and in the judge interview. If the judges don't bring it up, the student should. Because of the necessarily short time allowed for evaluation, judges sometimes wait to really dig into the bibliography until after judging ends. So if the student raises the issue first, it won't be an issue later--when the student is unable to defend the choice.

Several websites offer good explanations of primary and secondary sources. Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) has a nice essay. So does Princeton, the University of California-Santa Cruz (whose essay looks at how to evaluate sources), and Ithaca College, which features a handy table comparing similar sources.

Really, though, a Google search of "primary vs. secondary sources" will get you a lot of helpful information and insight. And, of course, the History Day staff is happy to answer your primary/secondary source questions, too. Good luck!

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