Primary Sources

Since the advent of Googling and related internet searches, “Information Literacy” has become a required course at many colleges and high schools. When I stopped teaching college history the internet was still new. At a computer workshop, I had to teach my grad students how to do a search. One student yelled upon finding digitized diaries of Neville Chester, a roadie for rock musician Jimi Hendrix. It was almost as good as holding a copy in her hands. We all ran up to look at her monitor. Wow, what great material this new technique promised! Sadly, since then the internet has become a source of questionable, wrong, and edited information. That’s why training in information literacy is now important for reliable research.

Chester’s diary itself is what my students knew was a Primary Source. These are what historians search for first in their studies. A primary source provides first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles. When it comes to studying an individual, a primary source is one by that person, such as a diary, letters, and works of art and music by the subject.

The diary in this case is a primary source if you are interested in Neville Chester or the life of the roadies. Also, anyone studying the 1968 tour would consider this a primary source. If interested in Hendrix, it is a secondary source because it is about the musician, not by him. But it is by someone who was very close, so it remains of great value to the rock researcher. Or it would be, except Chester doesn’t mention Jimi !

On the Jack London website I edit with Roy Tennant, we wanted to include  primary sources. One example is a navigation sheet from his trip across the Pacific Ocean on the Snark. Here you can see how he worked in pen and signed the sheet as well. He was a very organized person, as is evident by the form he created to guide this process. I know from the type that it would have been done on his wife Charmian’s typewriter, probably by her on his instructions.

Unfortunately it is still the case that most of the web is not rich with digitized primary documents. Sometimes there are documents that have been typed up for easy reading. An example is Jack London’s will, in transcription. Such copies can have errors or have been changed by the editor. I once came across a transcription of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in which the word “Negro” became “African-American.” The transcriber thought political-correctness was more important than accuracy.

Ancestry has greatly improved by scanning original documents. These include photographs, military records, census forms, and wills. A great collection for browsing and learning more about primary documents is from the New York Public Library. It offers many exact copies of its materials. Another enormous source is the Library of Congress. If you bookmark these last two, you will find years of entertainment as well as history.

To locate more unique collections, think of a key word and search accordingly. Such as “digitized collection Wyoming” or “digitized collection ballet.” So long Wikipedia, much as we use you.  From the Library of Congress, a notebook page of Alexander Graham Bell.bell-notebook




One thought on “Primary Sources

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s