Jump to content
The Education Forum
Sign in to follow this  
Tim Gratz

Primary v Secondary Sources

Recommended Posts

John, would you be willing to briefly comment on what historians mean when they refer to primary or secondary sources and why the distinction is important.

There may be deliberate misinformation in a secondary source or simply mistakes. But when we rely on secondary sources, we can repeat the errors and the constant repetition can sometimes add legitimacy.

As an example are the many early books that reported that Desmond Fitzgerald met with Cubela in Paris on November 22, 1963. It is now clear that Fitzgerald was in DC and it was Cubela's case officer who met with him and delivered the CIA poison pen on November 22nd. I'm not sure how the misimpression was first generated, but it may very well be that other writers simply repeated the error of the first writer because they failed to check the primary source.

Many Forum members may be familiar with the terminolgy and its importance but it might be helpful for you to comment. (If you want, I'll give it a try and you can correct me.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
John, would you be willing to briefly comment on what historians mean when they refer to primary or secondary sources and why the distinction is important.

A historian uses primary sources to write about the past. Primary sources are usually created around the time of the event: photographs, letters, newspaper reports, diary entries, official documents, etc. In some cases, primary sources can be produced some time after the event: interviews with witnesses to events, memoirs, autobiographies, public statements (like the one made by Tosh Plumlee on this forum).

When I use the term historian I do not mean a person who makes a living from writing about the past. I use it in the sense of the methodology being used. I consider several members of this forum historians although they might be earning their living in a very different activity.

All primary sources create problems. This is partly because the person who created the source might be attempting to disguise the truth of what happened. This might be because they wish to project a good image of themselves. In some cases, the person is intent on telling lies. The role of the historian is to examine the primary source in great detail. This will result in the historian interpreting the source in light of their knowledge of other sources and the person who created the source currently being examined. The role of the historian is very similar to that of a detective trying to solve a crime. They both use similar methods in an attempt to discover what happened in the past.

A secondary source is what people do with these primary sources: books, articles, television documentaries, etc. When a historian produces a secondary source he/she should provide notes and references. This enables other historians/researchers to check the evidence.

One of the major problems concerning the JFK case was that most of the early authors who wrote about it were not historians. Therefore they did not include notes and references in their books. It was therefore difficult to check their information.

Over a period of time the best JFK researchers began to work like historians. For example, Anthony Summers was a journalist by training. However, he knew that if he was to be taken seriously he had to write like a historian. That is why he has become such an important figure in this field.

I have attempted over the months, with varying success, to persuade people on this forum to write like historians. I believe it is only when we do this that the academic world will take our research seriously.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
John, would you be willing to briefly comment on what historians mean when they refer to primary or secondary sources and why the distinction is important.

A historian uses primary sources to write about the past. Primary sources are usually created around the time of the event: photographs, letters, newspaper reports, diary entries, official documents, etc. In some cases, primary sources can be produced some time after the event: interviews with witnesses to events, memoirs, autobiographies, public statements (like the one made by Tosh Plumlee on this forum).

When I use the term historian I do not mean a person who makes a living from writing about the past. I use it in the sense of the methodology being used. I consider several members of this forum historians although they might be earning their living in a very different activity.

All primary sources create problems. This is partly because the person who created the source might be attempting to disguise the truth of what happened. This might be because they wish to project a good image of themselves. In some cases, the person is intent on telling lies. The role of the historian is to examine the primary source in great detail. This will result in the historian interpreting the source in light of their knowledge of other sources and the person who created the source currently being examined. The role of the historian is very similar to that of a detective trying to solve a crime. They both use similar methods in an attempt to discover what happened in the past.

A secondary source is what people do with these primary sources: books, articles, television documentaries, etc. When a historian produces a secondary source he/she should provide notes and references. This enables other historians/researchers to check the evidence.

One of the major problems concerning the JFK case was that most of the early authors who wrote about it were not historians. Therefore they did not include notes and references in their books. It was therefore difficult to check their information.

Over a period of time the best JFK researchers began to work like historians. For example, Anthony Summers was a journalist by training. However, he knew that if he was to be taken seriously he had to write like a historian. That is why he has become such an important figure in this field.

I have attempted over the months, with varying success, to persuade people on this forum to write like historians. I believe it is only when we do this that the academic world will take our research seriously.

Thank you, John, excellent points all. You are correct that there can be problems with primary sources. In addition, given the nature of this case, there are of course endless disputes over the authenticity of primary sources. For instance, witnesses claim that FBI agents did not accurately record their statements; we have issues of possible body alteration; forging autopsy photographs, etc.

But it is worthwhile for serious assassination researchers to, for instance, read the actual testimony of witnesses rather than relying on how authors summarizre that testimony. Many authors have agendas and this can cause them, consciously or not, to distort testimony. Mr. Posner is certainly a case in point.

It is very frustrating to me to read a book which is otherwise well-referenced and then encounter an important point with no reference whatsoever.

I find that in evaluating a book I can often judge its validity by the strength of its references. Does it reference primary sources, or are all of the references secondary? And it can become like fourth-hand hearsay: the first author, whether intentionally or not, misquotes or colors the primary source. The second author does not even read the primary source but merely relies on the first author, and he introduces additional error. You can also observe, from time to time, two authors who rely on the same primary source but have different conclusions regarding what the facts are.

Thanks again, John.

Edited by Tim Gratz

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dear Tim,

Primary Sources are contemporary sources. They can be the eyewitness account, the written material which was written at that time concerning a given event, the various items which belonged to that event or period.

Herodotus is the father of history. He was the first person to have used the eyewitness account to write the history. Herodotus had crossexamined the eyewitnesses in such a manner that the reality of the event which would have existed in its true form had been identified and then recorded. He wrote his work called “history” which was an account of war between Grecian and Persians. Before him, whatsoever went around is classified as Myths as there is not evidence to prove the facts given in there. Now these days, the present generation has more primary sources as the media for preserving such sources are many. The people who were directly involved or concerned with JFK assassination whom you desire to meet to seek answers to many of your doubts, are primary sources. All the discussion which you are now carrying on, if it remain confined to the actual facts will become a secondary source.

However, primary sources are dealt with great caution. IN history, there are two sources on Mauryan Period. One is Indica by Magathenese which is not available in original form but the details of Indica are given by writers like Strabo and Justin. The latter two were contemporary of Magathenese. The second source is Arthasashtra by Kautilya (Vishnu Gupta) who was the main advisor to the Mauryan King Chandragupta Mauraya. In Indica, it is written that there were seven social classes in India. However, Arthsashtra gives account of four Varnas which was latter called castes. Similarly, the inscriptions on Pillars which were written by Asoka, he identifies classes living on the periphery of the civilized world or Antajatiyas.

Similarly, there are two primary sources about the Akbar period. One is by Abu Fazal called Akbarnama and other is by Barani. They gives totally different account of Akbar administration. As Abu Fazal had direct access to the official records and Barani has some different agenda in writing his account, there Abu Fazal account is considered more authentic. But both of them are considered as the primary sources.

Hence, the contemporary proofs, writings and eyewitness accounts are primary sources. They are always considered authentic.

Secondary Sources are all those written works which are based on the works that had been based contemporary sources. They are sources which are written afterwards. All the books and documents based on the accounts of past are secondary sources. You write a book on JFK debate on the basis of discussion on this forum, then it will be a secondary source.

Hence, anything written later, based on the version which is given on the evaluation of primary sources is a secondary source.

There is a very good exercise on related sites on this very forum.

Even John has raised this question in one of his posting in History debate. He had raised the issue on ideology in the field history. It also deals with dealing with primary sources and secondary sources and the analytic methods adopted in the field of history to reach a scientific conclusion.

In Philosophy of History Section of this forum, I will raise such questions for my own benefit. I am posting this answer but with a feeling that meaning is not conveyed as clearly as it should been done.

I am interested in learning what John will say. It seems that he is reading something on methodology in history. Your posting is directed towards him. (he is already here with the answer)

Finally, you have suggested to say something on Post Modernism in history. I wish that I might soon learn about it.

Post Script: John is already with the answer. I just place it for my own benefit so that I may get some comments on it from John.

John, would you be willing to briefly comment on what historians mean when they refer to primary or secondary sources and why the distinction is important.

There may be deliberate misinformation in a secondary source or simply mistakes.  But when we rely on secondary sources, we can repeat the errors and the constant repetition can sometimes add legitimacy.

As an example are the many early books that reported that Desmond Fitzgerald met with Cubela in Paris on November 22, 1963.  It is now clear that Fitzgerald was in DC and it was Cubela's case officer who met with him and delivered the CIA poison pen on November 22nd.  I'm not sure how the misimpression was first generated, but it may very well be that other writers simply repeated the error of the first writer because they failed to check the primary source.

Many Forum members may be familiar with the terminolgy and its importance but it might be helpful for you to comment.  (If you want, I'll give it a try and you can correct me.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is something that I have also been considering. I have read so many books that seem to have the very same information, and with no citation. I do know of some instances when I discovered the original information was bogus to begin with and no one ever actually checked it out through the years. I am unable at the moment, to recall examples of this though.

I have also read books with relatively well know facts that an author has given wrong info. In fact, recently I read a book by a well known author, in a recommeded book, that stated Wesley Frazer and his sister, drove LHO to work at the TSBD that morning!!

I had to read that three times to make sure I read it correctly. This disappointed me and I felt the writer should have known better then that. I had that thought in mind, when reading the entire book. In fact, I believe I did see some other such misinfo. Perhaps the writer only wrote what he had researched for his main thesis and did not bother with his minor points.

Right now, I am reading a brand new book, that is full of a lot of new info by another well known researcher-writer. These things I have never heard or read any place before. He does state that he got a lot of the info from another researcher, who has done the specific research So, I am unable to know if any of it is all new and true facts or misinfo or even disinfo. There are citations I can check out, but many things have nothing, except the other researchers name as a reference. This is somewhat disturbing to me.

Dixie

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

So Dixie, what's the book? :)

This is something that I have also been considering. I have read so many books that seem to have the very same information, and with no citation. I do know of some instances when I discovered the original information was bogus to begin with and no one ever actually checked it out through the years. I am unable at the moment, to recall examples of this though. 

I have also read books with relatively well know facts that an author has given wrong info. In fact, recently I read a book by a well known author, in a recommeded book, that stated Wesley Frazer and his  sister, drove LHO to work at the TSBD that morning!!

I had to read that three times to make sure I read it correctly. This disappointed me and I felt the writer should have known better then that. I had that thought in mind, when reading the entire book. In fact, I believe I did see some other such misinfo. Perhaps the writer only wrote what he had researched for his main thesis and did not bother with his minor points. 

Right now, I am reading a brand new book, that is full of a lot of new info by another well known researcher-writer. These things I have never heard or read any place before. He does state that he got a lot of the info from another researcher, who has done the specific research So, I am unable to know if any of it is all new and true facts or misinfo or even disinfo. There are citations I can check out, but many things have nothing, except the other researchers name as a reference. This is somewhat disturbing to me.

Dixie

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I have also read books with relatively well know facts that an author has given wrong info. In fact, recently I read a book by a well known author, in a recommeded book, that stated Wesley Frazer and his  sister, drove LHO to work at the TSBD that morning!!

One of my favorites is in the book "JFK" by L. Fletcher Prouty, who writes on page 293: "The Warren Report contains testimony by Forest Sorrels of the Secret Service. Sorrels said that he and a Mr. Lawson of the Dallas Police Department selected 'the best (motorcade) route' . . . "

Not only had Prouty never heard of SS agent Winston Lawson, nor did Prouty bother to actually look at Sorrels's testimony which identifies Lawson, but he was too lazy to try to find out exactly who this "Mr. Lawson" of DPD was who helped select the fateful route.

Ron

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I have also read books with relatively well know facts that an author has given wrong info. In fact, recently I read a book by a well known author, in a recommeded book, that stated Wesley Frazer and his  sister, drove LHO to work at the TSBD that morning!!

One of my favorites is in the book "JFK" by L. Fletcher Prouty, who writes on page 293: "The Warren Report contains testimony by Forest Sorrels of the Secret Service. Sorrels said that he and a Mr. Lawson of the Dallas Police Department selected 'the best (motorcade) route' . . . "

Not only had Prouty never heard of SS agent Winston Lawson, nor did Prouty bother to actually look at Sorrels's testimony which identifies Lawson, but he was too lazy to try to find out exactly who this "Mr. Lawson" of DPD was who helped select the fateful route.

Ron

I also tend to doubt Prouty as a source on much.

Although I disagree with its thesis (that the Diem coup led to the Kennedy assassination) the book "Triangle of Death" contains a lot of good information. However, its authors do not know who Sam Papich was.

Perhaps in this thread we can identify documented factual errors in the assassination literature.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...