“Primary sources provide a window into the past – unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period. Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.”
Library of Congress website
When most people think of the term primary source, they think of those firsthand resources affiliated with a historical event, experience, or expression. Even the Library of Congress describes primary sources as “the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study”, noting that primary sources “are different from secondary sources, [which are] accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience”. In addition, most people who are aware of primary sources realize the wide breadth of resource types that fit that label: from presidential or civil rights speeches to historical photos, audiovisual materials (such as audio interviews or film footage), artifacts, letters, maps, and even original creative works are all correctly considered to be primary sources. Many students have either used or considered such resources while researching the background, timeline, or developments of a niche subject, or during the course of a project or assignment in areas like history, economics, or political science.
The primary source, however, applies not just to those resources affiliated with a person or object connected to a historical time, but also to those resources reflecting recent and present-day experience. Indeed, the primary source includes every source type, every point on the (historical and modern) timeline, and covers both academic and non-academic foundations. From an audio recording, podcast, or video of a professor’s lecture to the abundance of direct-experience video footage of Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath, the proliferation of technological applications in the past few decades offers an exponentially-growing collection of important primary sources.
Among these options lies an incredible opportunity for finding primary source gold. You may not follow Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio Show blog, for example, or the blog of some less-popular but equally brilliant astrophysicist. And you may or may not attach much future-historical value to President Obama chomping on pizza, burgers, or sushi. But these examples provide those now-glimpses into those personal, in-between moments, whether it’s commentary on a recent publication, a quirky take on some present-day debate, or that rare off-topic post about a spouse’s recent change in health. How valuable would scholars – and society – find a permanent archive of scholarly blog posts penned by Albert Einstein? What thoughts, opinions, or theoretical conundrums might he have worked out through his blog posts, as many researchers do now in their blogs? And I don’t know about you, but I do wish we had more images of Abraham Lincoln in a Five Guys Burgers and Fries. I may not follow our president’s restaurant photo-ops, but you can be sure I appreciate the eventual value such seemingly-inane photos inherently hold.
These analogies may seem exaggerated, but they aren’t, and the scholarly blog post is a prime example of a primary source document that holds true and lasting value. You can find primary sources in every academic subject right now: credentialed commentary and complex analysis in every discipline or niche topic imaginable. Often a scholar’s professional and personal outlet for pre- or post-publication discourse, blogs offer researchers an avenue for important conversations in that discipline as well as academic nuances or events that affect the scholar or his/her research.
Even scholars in commonly-identified primary source “subjects” like history recognize the importance of valuing present-day reflections and output as inherently valuable in both present and future-historical contexts. As historian and museum curation expert Dr. Steven Lubar explained in an ACI interview, “[t]here’s an increasing interest in ‘contemporary collecting’, curators acquiring things in present-day use.” (Be sure to read Dr. Lubar’s excellent post, Primary-Source Twitter.) Certainly, the historical museums of the future will be able to present our present-day experiences in a far more detailed, comprehensive, and intensely personal way than we’re currently able to do with, say, the pyramid-building times of Egypt, or “day in the life” glimpses into an average family in a given historical era. In the meantime, however, scholars and non-scholars alike should reflect on the incredible, intrinsic value that scholarly blog posts provide as a primary source for present and future research and discovery.