A REALLY SIMPLE INTRODUCTION TO PRIMARY & SECONDARY SOURCES
Primary sources are bits and pieces of your life that are accessible to other people. Your driver’s license and the fading Bunnings receipts that you keep in your wallet are both primary sources. Your accurate or inaccurate memory of past events and relationships are primary sources. Your emails, journals, and Facebook photos are primary sources.
Secondary historical sources should be vetted and thoughtfully presented reports or narratives based on primary sources. This foundational and logical principle of historical inquiry has been under attack by local tertiary institutions and throughout the world.
By using these simple definitions, you can understand that we produce far more than we could ever keep. Major cities in the world are built on layers of ancient cities which precluded them. What determines our accessibility to source material? Under the overarching theme of providence, source material is preserved by the environment and by deliberate conservation or duplication. The Dead Sea Scrolls and King Tutenkhamen’s Tomb remained undiscovered for hundreds of years after their immediate relevance. In both cases, the environment (location, obscurity, etc) played a role in their ultimate preservation. One of Indiana Jones’ favourite lines is: “It belongs in a museum.” This illustrates the second mode of preservation – deliberate conservation. People preserve things that they believe will be of lasting value. If a fire was raging through your house – would you save your kettle or your photos?
SO WHERE SHOULD I START LOOKING?
Christians have access to a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. The Ages Digital Library and the Christian Ethereal Library are two great places to reference primary sources. I’ll never forget the day I sold my three volume Treasury of David for $20.00 to purchase the complete works of Spurgeon for $20 via Ages. Good deal. You can access both sites with a click of the mouse and a Google search could get you similar results for the major primary sources.
Steve commented that primary sources are often difficult to read. I concur. One of the natural springboards for primary source research is autobiography (primary source) or biography (secondary source). You won’t be able to resist Spurgeon Metropolitan Tabernacle sermons (primary source) after you read Arnold Dallimore’s short work on Spurgeon (secondary source).
If you must start with primary sources – I recommend the works you yourself have often referenced or heard of without actually reading them. I’m thinking Sinners in the hands of an angry God by Jonathan Edwards or the Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther.
(PS – i’ve been doing some research into the life of Servetus for a future post… it’s complicated!)