History is the study of the past. In order to uncover facts about the past sources must be studied. Historians distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
- Primary includes original material created at the time of events (‘contemporaneous’) such as legal deeds, administrative documents (including civil registration of births, marriages and deaths), diaries and journals, letters, newspapers of the day, photographs, portraits.
- Secondary sources are created after the event and include monographs and journal articles.
- And then there’s oral history …
All sources have to be examined in context. Thus, for instance, any diary, although created at the time being scrutinised, has to be treated with a healthy scepticism as it contains the opinions of a person and may not necessarily contain the ‘whole truth’; remember that a person may not have had the full picture themselves about which the historian, at the distance of many years later, might have more information. This gap in information is a reason why personal interviews have to be considered with care. For example, time and again genealogists come across family members who make remarks such as, ‘Oh no, that can’t be right. I was always told that so-and-so died in childbirth’, and then a death certificate shows that the mother died three years later! Genealogy is a subset of history and so the study of primary sources has a primacy over transcripts and family folklore.
Another meaning of ‘History’ is the writing about it. So that this isn’t just a catalogue of facts, you must read around the subject in order to understand the background and context of the subject matter. This is the area that I find fascinating as often the 21st century has forgotten about how, for instance, the Poor Law operated in the 19th century. Understanding how the legal system worked made me understand why people were in the workhouse, why they were buried in one cemetery rather than another, and so on. But that’s the subject of another post.