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Secondary Sources

Historians' accounts are usually called 'secondary sources', in order to distinguish them from the 'primary' source material on which they are based. However, 'secondary source' is not an entirely satisfactory term. It suggests a hierarchy of importance, with 'secondary' writings ranking less highly than 'primary' sources. This can lead the unwary student into assuming that primary sources must somehow be a more direct - and therefore more accurate - reflection of the past. In fact, primary source material may tell us relatively little until a historian has been able to explain what it is, how it fits into its wider context, and how its contents can shed light on that context.

That being said, we should subject secondary sources to the same scrutiny as we do primary material. Historical writing is as much a reflection of its author's personality and outlook, and of the circumstances in which she or he lived, as any other form of writing. To paraphrase the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, historians do not leave their own personalities at the door of their studies, the way one would shed a wet raincoat. Indeed, historical writing can also provide 'primary' evidence of the time when it was written - just think, for example, of the writings of Edward Gibbon or AJP Taylor, historians whose works can provide rich evidence of the concerns of their own periods.

It is also true that different audiences can interpret historical writing in very different ways. The highly subjective nature of history writing - selecting the material, constructing the argument and choosing the language in which to communicate it - and the equally subjective process of reading history have led postmodernist scholars to declare the writing of history to be a largely pointless task, which can make little claim to objectivity or to giving an 'accurate' or 'truthful' picture of the past. Historians have responded robustly to this attack on their profession: after all, the logic of the postmodernist case would undermine any form of ‘factual’ writing (certainly, as historians of science have pointed out, much the same accusations of subjectivity can be made against scientists). Indeed, it would be very difficult to think what an entirely objective historical account might look like, for even the most apparently neutral and factual account, such as one might see in an encyclopedia, carries its own interpretation which others might contest - as the original designers of Wikipedia, to name but one example, clearly understood...

Hidden Meanings of Historical Writing >>