Monday, October 8, 2012

A Teachable Moment

By  Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On September 21, I headed to Horseheads High School to give students a lesson about archives, primary sources and their uses.  It went well, the students seemed to have fun, and it got me thinking.  Unless someone is a historian or a researcher, most people don’t know what makes an archive different from a library or what a primary sources is.  This, I thought, was a teachable moment especially since I had the lesson all written out already.
When I give tours of the archives, I usually like to start out by asking if my visitors know the difference between an archives and a library.  I usually get an assortment of answers.  A popular one is that libraries have books while archives have everything else.  This is a pretty good answer, but the best one is that archives have primary sources while libraries have secondary sources. 
So, what is a primary source?  What’s a secondary source?  A primary source is something created as part of or at the time of a historical event.  Some examples include, but are not limited to, letters, diaries, receipts, newspapers and ledgers.  A secondary source, on the other hand, is something about a historical event created long after the fact.  The key thing about secondary sources is that they are an interpretation of the facts as created by someone who wasn’t there to experience them.  Secondary sources include books, school papers, documentaries, scholarly articles and museum exhibits.
Here’s an example of the difference:
Primary Source - Gen. Sullivan’s orders to his men on the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 

Secondary Source - Book about Gen. Sullivan and the  Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 

So, why do we care about primary sources?   What can they tell us?  Firstly, they can tell us discrete facts.   This marriage certificate, for example, tells us that Sam Clemens married Olivia Langdon on February 2, 1870.   It provides us both with a date for an event, but also as proof that the event occurred, in many cases the only proof. 

Primary sources can also tell us how conditions changed over time.  What kinds of conditions change over time?  Some of the big ones are demographics, economics and environmental.  In our archives, for example, we have a series of ledgers which record daily weather patterns in Elmira from 1871 to 1876.  Some other common records tracking changing conditions include census data, vital statistics, business ledgers and stock price indexes.  
Primary sources can also tell us how people felt about a certain topic. In some cases, it can be how a specific individual felt about something, like you would find in a letter or a diary.  In other cases it’s more about how society as a whole felt about something, like advertisements, plays, literature and other cultural artifacts. 

Lastly, primary sources, especially photographs, film and audio recordings, can show us what something looked or sounded like.  Look at  this view of Hanover Square.  Would you have believed it ever looked like that if we didn’t have the picture?

So, if primary sources are so great, why bother with secondary sources at all?  Because primary sources can’t tell the whole story.  For one, they’re too specific and thus lack context.  Think back to the marriage certificate.  It told us when Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon were married, but didn’t tell us anything else about the couple, like the groom was actually Mark Twain. 
Primary sources often tend to be incomplete.  Because they were made for a specific purpose and not expected to survive, people didn’t always include information they thought was irrelevant.  Dates, for example.  I can’t tell you how many theater programs we have in our collections with no years because the theatres didn’t think it was important.  Not to mention photographs.  No one puts last names on family photos because everyone knows exactly who Aunt Peggy is. 
By their nature, secondary sources bring the information in primary sources together to give us a bigger picture than we can get from a single thing.  They also help to provide context into which we can place the information from our primary sources.  A biography of Mark Twain helps us understand why his marriage was significant.  An article in a local history magazine about area theatres stars helps us narrow down the date of the program and a family tree tells us Aunt Peggy’s last name. 

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