This book concludes with a survey of the different types of primary sources available for the student of twentieth-century history. A similar approach was provided in the final chapter of the volume preceding this one-Aspects of British Political History 1815-1914. In some instances, general points will be common to both, although examples and chronological references obviously differ. The reader of both volumes will therefore detect some overlapping, but also a number of contrasts between observations on the sources of the two periods: 1815-1914 and 1914-1995.
Primary sources are produced during the period being studied, which means that in this case some will be nearly a hundred years old (and classifiable by collectors as 'antiques'), while others will be contemporary. Primary sources have been described as the raw material from which history is made and they play a vital role in interpretations to be found in secondary sources. Interest in primary sources was initiated by the nineteenth-century German historical school but, during the second half of the twentieth century, has been given a new focus within the British educational system. The scope of primary sources has also expanded enormously over the past hundred years, the proliferation of written documents being the result of two technological revolutions: the typewriter and the word processor.
Every student of history is now familiar with the shades and variety of primary sources and with the questions which need to be asked of them: are they reliable and are they useful? The overall response generally given to this question is that reliability and usefulness depend entirely upon what the historian envisages as their function. This will be considered in greater depth in relation to diaries, memoirs and autobiographies; official documents; speeches; cartoons; newspapers; statistics; and novels.