Updated: Jan 12
So you've decided to dabble in primary sources. Congratulations!
For many of us, this was one of a string of poor decisions that led us to take up history as a profession.
Like snake handling, it is important to know a bit about your quarry in order to properly manage it, especially since you're bound to come across a few "venomous" sources in your research.
What Is a Primary Source?
Primary sources are, in a basic sense, original firsthand perspectives that give relatively direct means to analyze a range of possible historical subjects.
You'll have to forgive the insufferable vagueness of the statement, it's a loose definition for a reason: the term "primary source" encompasses a wide range of possible formats that convey information about an event or circumstances with varying familiarity, closeness and objectivity. They're ultimately just useful tools that help us piece together interpretations of historical contexts to allow us to interpret the past.
There are a few misconceptions about primary sources that we should clear up.
That they are objective reflections of contemporary reality
That they have a truth value that is inherently superior to secondary sources, or sources produced later
That they are necessarily documents or narratives
That they always were produced by a person who was present during an event
Let's deal with each of those individually.
1. Are they objective reflections of contemporary reality?
This is a big one. The not-so-obvious answer is "no, of course not." Primary sources are not wisps of ethereal truth plucked from heaven. They were produced by someone with a particular vantage from which to view an event or era, so by definition they cannot be objective, even when relaying a simple chronicle-style narration of an event.
Why is this important? Think about how historians used to get paid. Most of us were in the employ of an institution or patron, and most historical narratives reflected this. For instance, one might notice that the protagonists and antagonists in historical chronicles suspiciously parallel the allies and rivals of their patrons and homelands. In some cases, as Fred Donner (1998) has observed, the acceptance of the official court narratives of the 'Abbasid dynasty after they snuffed their caliphal Umayyad rivals left centuries of historians (both Muslim and Orientalist) believing that the Umayyads were a bunch of debauched incompetents who got what they deserved, when in fact they were likely no more incompetent or debauched than any other historical dynasty (including the 'Abbasids, who only really ruled their own empire from 750 to the mid 9th century).
In fact, if we're going to guess about the origins of the "Great Man" paradigm in history, it probably traces back to the fact that my professional predecessors were generally obsequious flatterers and mythologizers. Which to be frank, was a good position to take if you wanted to keep your job and/or head.
Is this necessarily bad? No. In fact, what the author of a source says or chooses not to say, or HOW they say it can tell you a lot. You just have to be shrewd when you're conducting analysis to pick up additional meaning.
This may offend strict textualists who cling to the illusion that there IS one truth to be discovered in history, but even they must admit that even straight readings of a source demand some interpretation on the part of the reader, and by their very nature, narratives require someone to convey them.
2. Is their truth value superior to secondary or non-contemporaneous sources?
Not necessarily. In fact, all sources are basically just sketching the past in different shades of falsehood. Herodotus was known as both the father of history and the father of lies for a reason!
On the more innocent side of this question, in many cases, relevant facts about an event or era only become apparent long after the memory of an event has had time to marinate. Think about diplomatic history. Contemporary analysis is often limited by the fact that many actions and motivations must remain officially secret for political or security reasons, so historians are left to draw from whatever evidence is available to them until the good stuff starts to trickle out. Once the archives open and redactions are removed, things get a bit more complicated, and that's when the fun begins.
Some facts will NEVER be known, even from apparently objective sources like, for instance, trade data. Sevket Pamuk (2010) has noted that Ottoman trade data will always be guesswork since officials lied like rugs to make the real trade deficits look better in the official documents. Even if we ignore this, most of the Empire's trade was conducted between Ottoman territories and went un or underrecorded. NOT TO MENTION smuggling and customs fraud. Even apparently "objective" sources must be analyzed with an eye to their weaknesses.
Oh, and let's not forget sources that were never intended to be objective. A good example from Lebanese history is the didactic historical poetry by Lebanese cleric and historian/memory consructer, Jibra'il Ibn al-Qila'i, A Panegyric on Mount Lebanon, in which he blamed the conquest and destruction of the region on the fact that the local Catholics were playing too nice with other (Jacobite) Christians.
The great historian of Lebanon, Kamal Salibi (1962) refers to ibn al-Qila'i's work as "little more than Roman propaganda with historical and pseudo-historical notes" (p. 219). Which may be generous.
Is the Ibn al-Qila'i's work an accurate chronicle of events in Lebanon during the period? Well, if you'll allow for Satan wandering around in your histories... no. No it really isn't. Is it useful? Certainly! Salibi analyzed Ibn al-Qila'i's specious logic and cherry-picked evidence to show the nuance of Maronite church politics and how it tried to portray itself in its history, which in the end is much more valuable to the historical record than a timeline of events.
3. Are primary sources documents or narratives?
Sometimes! But primary sources can be so much more! A book. A photo. A collection of photos! A video. A physical object. A recipe. An oral account of family lore. A really old secondary analysis.
Primary sources are original items that can convey information about themselves or other things from their particular era. If you're creative, that could be a lot of things.
4. Were they always produced by someone who actually witnessed an event?
Nope! This seems contrary to the very idea of primary sources, but it makes sense if you consider what it means to be a witness or proximate to an event. Non-direct witnesses can still report contemporary attitudes, rumors, characterizations and perceptions of history, which can be quite useful.
For instance, how many historians who wrote about wars were actually there on the battlefield? Obviously very few. Historians are generally shit in a fight and too cynical to sacrifice ourselves for king, country, or principles in general. However, historians have often claimed authoritative insight of battles, offering God's eye view narratives of events that they could never have witnessed.
Since the historian's narrative is often the only textual information we have to piece together the history of the event, it's often privileged as accurate - if it wasn't we'd have to admit that we have no real way of fact-checking the past and nobody would trust us or buy our books. However, we CAN use source-critical analysis to determine how accurate an account actually is, or to mine the sources for information and attitudes that can reveal details about the past, if only by proxy. At the very least, we need to be honest about our sources and realistic about how much to trust them.
This post, all things considered, probably raises as many questions as it answers. But that's good. Simple explanations are never the best ones - if you ever doubt that, go try to construct the history of a complex event from scratch (from the primary sources).