Saturday, March 26, 2005

Where did this come from? Part two

Finally, caring about the provenance of "facts" and information you find on the net.

Primary sources

In long-ago high school history classes, we weren't exposed to primary sources. Did they think we couldn't handle them? We didn't read the entertainingly crabby letters written by Jefferson and Adams, we read bland textbook recaps.

How not to teach history

"The parent has a variety of ways to deliver the food. Food that has been swallowed by the parents needs to be regurgitated into the nestling's mouth. The parent may place its bill into the gaping mouth, forcing or pumping the food into the nestling's throat.

"Pigeon parents grab the nestling's bill, while the young bird reaches inside for food. Many gull species have a conspicuous spot on the tip of the beak which the young peck, forcing regurgitation. Regurgitated food is assumed to have been partially digested by enzymatic activity of the parent's digestive system (more)."

Moving along to another unappetizing oral metaphor: in college I discovered the delight of news "straight from the horse's mouth," a.k.a. primary sources.

Straight from the horse's mouth:
From the highest authority.

Origin: In horse racing circles tips on which horse is a likely winner circulate amongst punters. The most trusted authorities are considered to be those in closest touch with the recent form of the horse, i.e. stable lads, trainers etc. The notional 'from the horse's mouth' is supposed to indicate one step better than even that inner circle.

My enthusiasm for primary sources makes genealogy an addictive hobby. I love pouring over microfilms. I discovered that 17th and 18th century Quakers were indefatigable busy-bodies and reliably cantankerous bloggers; each week, like clockwork, the secretaries penned detailed reports of fallen Friends who were: drinking too much! selling too successfully the output of their backyard stills! secretly training with the militia! fornicating! skipping meetings! etc.

Of course supposedly "eye witness" accounts are often false, too, to a greater or lesser degree. I bet some of those old biddies were making up the scandals they reported. Their reports being of the time, however, means there is still truth to glean; simply get out your magnifying glass and check for airbrushing.

Genealogists always ask about any piece of data: where did it come from? The internet has made it possible for genealogical misinformation to travel quickly, losing its attribution along the way.

I once spent many hours tracking down the source of a dubious death date, finally finding it to be a cemetery transcription. When I visited the cemetery myself, the death date, etched in stone, was eroded but readable. It said 1849, not 1819. False datum squelched to my satisfaction.

A tombstone is not exactly a primary document (the carver carves what he's told to carve), but it's close.

From the Smithsonian:
Primary sources are original items or records that have survived from the past, such as ... letters, photographs, and manuscripts. They were part of a direct personal experience of a time or event.

Secondary Sources are created by documenting or analyzing someone else's experience to provide a perspective or description of a past event and may have been written long after an event took place. Many sources (such as textbooks and encyclopedias) used in a typical school environment are secondary sources.

How Reliable are Primary Sources? Every document has a creator, and every creator has a point of view or bias. The Library of Congress presents these archival records of America's past with minimal interpretation or explanation.
From UC Berkeley:
Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Undergraduates are sometimes allowed to use ... the types of materials listed below.
  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
  • Memoirs and autobiographies. These may be less reliable than diaries or letters since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
  • Records of or information collected by government agencies. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licences issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.
  • Records of organizations. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.
  • Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.
  • Materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical time period. ... the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.
  • Research data such as anthropological field notes, the results of scientific experiments, and other scholarly activity of the time.
My thanks to anybody who plowed patiently through these semi-diatribes.

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At 1:18 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

(Yay! Comments are working again! Sometimes they don't...)

I love primary sources. My undergraduate degree is in history, and when I was studying colonial India I had a wonderful time with primary sources. English people wrote a lot when they were posted to India, so there was never a shortage of material.

One thing I remember wanting to research turned up almost nothing, though. This was the 'chapati mystery,' which appealed to me enormously when I came across it, but further research revealed that not only was it a mystery to the British but also to the Indians who took part in it. I found one or two primary sources of participants who knew what they had to do, and did, but didn't know why, or what it meant. That made it hard to write a paper about it.

(Some info about it here:


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