To the historian, a document is, quite simply, any sort of historical evidence. It is a primary source, the raw material of history. A document may be more than the expected government paperwork, such as a treaty or passport. It is also a letter, diary, will, grocery list, newspaper article, recipe, memoir, oral history, school yearbook, map, chart, architectural plan, poster, musical score, play script, novel, political cartoon, painting, photograph––even an object.
Using primary sources allows us not just to read about history, but to read history itself. It allows us to immerse ourselves in the look and feel of an era gone by, to understand its people and their language, whether verbal or visual. And it allows us to take an active, hands-on role in (re)constructing history.
This political cartoon addresses the issue of church and
state. It illustrates the Supreme Court’s role in balancing
the demands of the First Amendment of the Constitution
and the desires of the religious population.
Using primary sources requires us to use our powers of detection to ferret out the relevant facts and to draw conclusions from them; just as Agatha Christie uses the scores in a bridge game to determine the identity of a murderer, the historian uses facts from a variety of sources––some, perhaps, seemingly inconsequential––to build a historical case.
The poet W. H. Auden wrote that history was the study of questions. Primary sources force us to ask questions––and then, by answering them, to construct a narrative or an argument that makes sense to us. Moreover, as we draw on the many sources from “the dust-bin of history,” we can endow that narrative with character, personality, and texture––all the elements that make history so endlessly intriguing.
such as this
alphabet from the
Primer, tell us
how children were
also what the
moral values of
the time were.