Sources: the Building Blocks of History

Historians use Sources to Find Out about the Past

1. Sources are things that historians use to find out about and make sense of the past.

2. They can be written (e.g. newspapers, government reports) or visual (e.g. photographs, maps, films).

3. Sources can be categorised as either primary or secondary:

Primary sources - evidence from the period you're studying.

For example, a newspaper report from the First World War from 4th September 1914, or a picture of Henry VIII that was painted during his reign.

Secondary sources - evidence about (but not from) the period you're studying.

For example, a 1989 book called 'Origins of the First World War', or a website providing information about all the portraits ever painted of Henry VIII.

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HistoriansHaveToInterrogateAndInterpretEverySource

1. Historians have to be very careful with sources. To make sure they're usin sources accurately, historians interrogate every source they use. This means they ask themselves a series of questions about the source's background.

  • What is the source? E.g. It is a painting of King Henry VIII.
  • Who made this source? E.g. it was produced by the King's official painter, Hans Holbein.
  • Why did they make the source? E.g. He was asked to paint it by the King.
  • Where and when was it made? E.g. It was made in the Palace of Whitehall in 1540.

2. Historians use their answers to work out how useful and how reliable a source is. For example:

  • This is a professional painting made during Henry's reign (meaning the painter could have met Henry). So this should be a useful source for finding out what Henry looked like.
  • BUT perhaps the painter would have been punished if he didn't show Henry looking good, so it may not be entirely reliable.

A source that presents a one-sided view is biased.

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Interrogate and Interpret part II

3. After they've interrogated a source, historians need to interpret it.

This means deciding what it tells them about the topic they're studying.

4. For example, Henry was probably quite a large man with fair hair and a beard. But the painter may have been told to make the picture to Henry's liking - so based on just one picture, you can't really say for sure how big he really was.

Henry was the King - people would have done what he told them to.

5. Historians look at lots of sources, and compare them against each other. If sources contradict one another, they'll try to work out why, and what this tells them about the past.

For example, another painting might show Henry as very unattractive. But a historian might interpret it differently, depending on whether Henry had seen and approved of the painting, or whether it had been made by one of Henry's enemies and was perhaps biased against him.

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