Both primary and secondary sources are useful and can help you learn about the past.
In the strictest definition, primary sources are usually considered to be items like personal letters, diaries, records or other documents created during the period under study. But primary sources can also include photographs, jewelry, works of art, architecture, literature, music, clothing, and other artifacts.
In a broader definition, primary sources can also be considered materials that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).
Primary sources might also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.
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Luckily, there are other ways to access the primary source information without going to the archive. Primary source information can be copied and made available in other publications. Letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, historical documents of all kinds have been reproduced and published in books, articles, journals, magazines, anthologies, and encyclopedias. Additionally, these reproductions can be in academic databases as well as educational and commercial websites.
One of the easiest ways to access primary source material without going to an archive is to use an anthology which is a collection of writings or articles. Scholars have amassed anthologies of selected primary source material and written additional commentary to help the reader understand the meaning and context of the primary source material. Generally the anthology will have a specific focus like renaissance writings on art making, 19th century art criticism of a specific individual. For example, there are books with the published letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, along with information about the artist, his life, his work, the conditions under which he worked and the general content of the letters. A scholar has written the supporting material and that material is considered a secondary source. It was written later than the primary source, it comments or explains or critiques the primary source.
Secondary sources are those which are written ABOUT events in the past. They usually interpret those events through the lens of the time period in which they are written. New discoveries are made and attitudes change over time causing understandings of past events to change. Facts may remain consistent, but interpretations change, sometimes drastically.
Secondary sources may address the primary source, but were created later by someone who did not experience it first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. Scholars writing about historical events, people, objects, or ideas produce secondary sources because they help explain new or different positions and ideas about primary sources. These secondary sources generally scholarly books, including textbooks, articles, encyclopedias, and anthologies.
Sources that have been published very recently will reflect the current theories and understanding of the past. If you use a secondary source that was published decades ago, it is important to know what subsequent scholars have written on the topic and what criticism they have made about the earlier work or its approach to the topic.
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In Introduction to Visual Culture, you learned how to evaluate written sources based on content. Now you know the difference between sources that are scholarly, professional, substantive news, and popular. This semester you are going to learn how to evaluate sources based on when they were written and how they are accessed and whether they are primary or secondary and why.
Context is everything…
Here are examples of the same content published in a popular magazine and reprinted in a scholarly anthology. For the purposes of the Modern Art History course, we will consider them primary.
You will be expected to understand and comment upon the context in which the content appeared.
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Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night which is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is a primary source since it is the original work of art. When you go to the museum you are looking at the exact work that he made. Any other version of it that you see in visual culture (photograph, slide, digital image, postcard, stationary) is a reproduction. It can be a different size and the color may vary. You may get the general idea of the painting but it would not be the same experience as seeing the real work.
The Museum of Modern Art's page for Starry Night contains a mixture of primary sources - a reproduction of the the painting and quotes from Van Gogh's letters - and secondary sources - the gallery wall text, excerpt from a MoMA publication, and a podcast about the painting.
Vincent van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother, Theo, and these letters are also primary sources but you would have to go to an archive to read the ACTUAL letters. At the archive you would wear special protective gloves so the oils from your hands would not harm the fragile paper and the letters would be brought to you in special containers. You would read them in an archival room where the temperature and humidity were controlled. You might be allowed to photocopy them. In that case, you would have to transcribe the contents by hand. The advantage of having this kind of access to a primary source is that you actually handle the original material. You can see exactly what van Gogh’s handwriting looked like and feel the quality of the paper. You would be using the original primary source.
Some archives are digitizing their collections and making them freely available on the web. For instance, the Van Gogh Museum has created the a web site for their Van Gogh Letters with original text, translations, facsimiles and indexes. Most archives, though, cannot publish their primary source materials in such a robust and extensive manner.