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Advantages and Disadvantages of Primary Data

Topics: Historiography, Primary source, Source text, Secondary source / Pages: 3 (515 words) / Published: Mar 4th, 2013
Advantages and Disadvantages of Primary Data
In historical scholarship, a primary source is a document or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied, often by the people being studied. In this sense primary does not mean superior. It refers to creation by the primary players, and is distinguished from a secondary source, which is a historical work, like a scholarly book or article, built up from primary sources.

Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived.

The accuracy and objectiveness of primary sources is a constant concern for historians. Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, and historians pay special attention to memory problems and efforts by participants to recall the past according to their own script. Government reports may be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. Less frequently, later documents may be the more accurate, as for example when a death leaves survivors feeling more comfortable about telling embarrassing details.

Accurate history is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Primary sources are often difficult to interpret and may have hidden challenges. Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, interpretation of some primary texts is best left to those with advanced college or postgraduate training, or advanced self-study or informal training.

A primary source is not, by default, more authoritative or accurate than a secondary source. Secondary sources often are subjected to peer review, are well documented, and are often produced through institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. A primary source like a journal entry, at best, only reflects one person's take on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete. Historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny.

As a general rule, however, modern historians prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done

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