skip to primary navigationskip to content

Where do Historical Sources come from?

As we've seen, sources can come from anywhere. However, there is a process by which most sources find their way into the hands of historians. First, it needs to be stressed that the vast bulk of material produced by the past has been destroyed, either deliberately or by the ravages of time. A minuscule proportion of the clothes worn by people in the past, for example, has survived to be exhibited in costume and design museums. The same is true of the letters, articles and books historians often rely upon; many have been torn up, burnt, misplaced or ravaged by generations of peckish rodents. This is as true of recent history as it is of the more distant past. The process by which some pieces survive and come down to us can owe a huge amount to chance. Attics and back rooms are often full of material from the past, most of which will be cleared out at some point unless someone spots and keeps some of the more valuable pieces. Many historians undertaking research have tales of finding collections of letters or old diaries kept in old shoe boxes among the family junk of the writer’s descendants. We often have much more information about governments than about individuals or society as a whole because many governments kept documents for future reference from an early stage: in medieval England, for example, documents were routinely stored, and many now survive, albeit not without the occasional trace of damage at the hands of a peckish mouse!

Sometimes people recognise much later, however, that papers might be of more general interest and deposit them in an archive. People in modern public life often think about this in advance and sort their papers ready for deposit. The Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, for example, has the papers of Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom had done a lot of preliminary sorting and editing before sending the papers to Cambridge. But it is equally possible even for a leading politician simply to bundle papers into boxes and hand them over. In either case, the archivists must sort them out, read through them, arrange them by category or date, prepare a catalogue giving reference numbers and an idea of the content, and store them in such a way that they can easily be retrieved if a researcher asks to see them. Sometimes papers have been damaged and have to be restored by skilled conservators. Sometimes even the best skill cannot save documents which have been damaged by fire, flood or careless users. At other times, documents simply go missing, or are stolen by unscrupulous users. Admiral Lord Nelson’s insignia, presented to him by the Ottoman Sultan for his victory at the Battle of the Nile, was stolen from the National Maritime Museum and has never been recovered.

To save papers from the effects of repeated use, archives have long sought to transfer their holdings into other forms. This is a massive undertaking and it has inevitably been overtaken by changes in technology. Many archives store holdings on microfilm, which is a reel of celluloid film spooled on to a reader machine with a large screen and read by winding the film from one spool to another. Some microfilm readers have a fast-spooling function, but others have to be operated manually. A later development was microfiche, a small rectangular sheet or fiche of acetate on which a number of documents can be stored and which is fed into a special microfiche reader; when one fiche is finished with it is taken out and the next one inserted. These techniques have been overtaken by the ease of scanning documents and putting them online, but few archives have the time or money to do this for all the documents which have already been put on microfilm or microfiche.

Online storage has the advantage of allowing people to see documents without having to visit the archive (although even this is no substitute for the real thing: experienced historians are aware of how often the most telling details can be found on the back of a document). Another important mode of access to archival documents for those who cannot travel to a particular archive is the published source collection. This can be a very handy way of keeping a collection of relevant source material close at hand, and it has the advantage of carrying notes about the sources. However, the user remains dependent on the compiler-editor's choice of documents. Though printed collections are an indispensable resource for experienced researchers as much as for undergraduates, they can never give a full picture of a particular archive in all its rich complexity, and are no real substitute for a trip to the reading room. 

How to use Historical Sources >>