Primary sources are the raw materials of history: written accounts, physical objects, and visual material allow historians to build narratives and construct arguments. Letters, diaries, written publications, laws, artwork, buildings, skeletal remains, environmental data, and even oral histories can all provide the first-hand evidence that historians need to make convincing arguments about the past and to properly evaluate the historical arguments made by others. Historians work primary sources into secondary and even tertiary sources: the books and textbooks assigned to students. They all rely, one way or another, on primary sources.
Students of history must know how to analyze and critically evaluate primary sources, for primary sources can distort as much as they reveal. The voice of slaves, for instance, can be drowned out by the letters and journals of slaveholders. We can produce more honest histories by interrogating our sources, asking questions such as, Who created this source? Who was their audience? How might their beliefs and perspectives have influenced their understanding? In the case of slavery, for instance, a critical eye is often needed to read between the lines and uncover forgotten histories hidden within the materials available to us. Historians must make the most of the sources they have. But while some eras and some topics lack abundant primary sources, others have almost too many, often more than any single historian can read and analyze. Under such conditions it can be tempting to cherry pick sources and create a narrative of one’s own choosing, but good historians must read widely and maintain an open but critical mind to discover patterns and produce historical insights.
Just as historians must approach their sources with a critical eye, so too must they be aware of their own preconceptions and biases–their own place in history. “The past is a foreign country,” novelist L.P. Harltey wrote, “they do things differently there.” We must be critical of ourselves. We cannot expect individuals in the past to know what we know or to behave as we behave. They had their own ideas and their own dreams. They viewed the world differently than we do. So if we are to understand the past, we must begin by recognizing the present. The more we study the past, the more we come to understand ourselves.
Learning to ask good questions is an important historical skill, yet we will often not know which questions to ask until we have steeped ourselves in primary sources. You may already have questions in mind as you read and evaluate the sources in this reader, but you should also pay attention to any thoughts, emotions, and historical questions that they may provoke. History is a conversation between the past and present, and, by reading the following sources and thinking critically about them, we hope that you will bring bring your own curiosity and creativity to the conversation.