For the non-historians out there, the past is often taken for granted. We know what we learned in high school and we have the “facts” to back it up—the atomic bomb touched the world in 1945, humans touched the moon in 1969. But who decides what qualifies as history? How do primary and secondary sources contribute to the writing of history? What do historians do every day?
At a recent Berkeley Connect History discussion session, a fission of excitement was in the air as graduate mentor Sam Robinson paced around the classroom and earnestly admitted that “today, we’ll finally get to discuss some actual history.” He paused for effect and then—after a round of icebreakers on favorite books (“Watchmen comic books…because reading is hard”)—we dove right into the topic of primary and secondary sources.
The class quickly established that creating a comprehensive list would be the most effective way to arrive at the definition of a primary source. “Statues,” ”fashion,” “photos,” “oral histories,“ ”newspapers,” “technology,” “music” and even “land borders and how they change over time” all constitute primary sources and inform historians about the zeitgeist of an era. In contrast to primary sources, secondary sources are, as one student described, “commentaries created by someone after the fact who did not experience the event first-hand.”
Another student wondered “what isn’t a primary source?” Sam elaborated that primary sources exclude things that were not modified by humans. For example, “if an animal—a Jack Russell Terrier, for example—was alive 200 years ago.” A student responded, “But what about the human manipulation of dog breeds—couldn’t that be studied? And if that’s the case then I would also argue that the absence of modification could also be studied, too.” Nods of approval went around the class and the conversation continued.
To truly understand the process of working with and creating histories, the students were asked to examine some actual primary sources. From our discussions we realized that something as seemingly innocuous as a census form could paint vivid pictures of the community it surveyed. Census categories and questions can convey the primary economic activities that took place; the value placed on certain family formations or roles; or even the public’s attitude towards slavery and disability.
As evident from the day’s conversations, the insights that historians are able to discover from primary sources are truly limitless. We all realized by the end of the session that a single definitive “history” of an event simply does not exist. The process of understanding history is as equally shaped by the hands of humans as the historical events themselves are.
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant