Reading Texts

Primary sources consist of first-hand accounts of events or developments written by contemporaries and eyewitnesses. Secondary sources are interpretations of events written by historians. For instance, a speech by President Abraham Lincoln is a primary source. An eyewitness account of this speech also counts as a primary source. A historian's discussion of the speech in a book, however, constitutes a secondary source. This discussion is an interpretation of Lincoln's speech.

Primary sources are important because they serve as the sturdiest foundation for any historical argument. And that is just what any secondary source is—an argument assembled by a historian. All of these arguments depend on an interpretation of primary sources. For a variety of reasons, different historians will produce different interpretations of the past. The strength of these arguments rests in the end on their correct interpretation of primary sources. Unfortunately, these primary sources are often difficult to evaluate. For one thing, eyewitnesses of events produce depictions of these events that are frequently inaccurate. As historians seek to understand eyewitness accounts, they often find themselves interpreting an interpretation. This is only one problem among many. The "past is a foreign country"—people in countries and times that differ from our own are difficult to understand. The alien culture, conditions, and ideas of this "foreign country"—in other words, the entire context within which people operate—makes interpretation of primary sources a confusing task. On top of that, the "foreigners" who produce our primary sources are often biased in one way or another.

While it is true that textbooks and other secondary sources deal with "facts" (e.g. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939), they also present interpretations (e.g. Hitler was surprised when Britain and France declared war on him for his assault on Poland). The authors of these works do not present interpretations at random—these interpretations constitute part of an overarching thesis.

Often described as "arguments," these theses often do not agree. Different historians look at different types of sources or interpret the same sources in various ways. Moreover, historians—just like everyone else—have different ways of understanding the world and the way it works. Over the years, then, historians conduct a dialogue with one another through their books and articles, challenging one another by presenting conflicting interpretations of the same events. Historians usually do not keep writing books about the same old topics over and over again because they have discovered new documents or sources (although this does happen) or because they need the money (although this also does happen), but because they have brought new questions to bear on the primary sources and produced new interpretations.

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Copyrighted by Hugh Dubrulle, 2008.