|Diary of Wilbur Wright, 1900|
As time went on, I used others definitions and worked to make meaning of them, but talking to educators about their definition of a primary source has helped me again evolve and move to my own definition.
|Who Were The Wright Brothers|
by James Buckley Jr.
and Tim Foley
Talking with teachers about their definition of a primary source and looking back on how I taught was a primary source was, my definition reveals some common misconceptions.
Misconception #1 A source is always primary or secondary.
Just by looking at the example, you can see that my old activity of sorting by format won't work. A letter isn't a primary source because it is a letter. It may be a primary source if it is connected with my topic of study and created during the time that the topic of study took place. Sources are primary or secondary (or not a source at all) depending on the topic and time of focus.
Misconception #2 Primary sources are "fact" while secondary sources are "opinion."
This isn't shown in the example, but many teachers, when sharing their definition of a primary source or when comparing it to a secondary source had an element of this misconception. Many teachers and students will imply that primary sources are better, truer, or more factual than secondary sources. In fact, primary sources contain plenty of opinion, bias, and perspective. The creator of the source brings that to the source itself. A written primary source has a perspective, a map has boundaries that the creator has decided to focus on and others that are not shown. A primary source photograph shows a certain view of an event and does not show other aspects, reflecting the perspective and choice of the creator.
Misconception #3 Primary sources are always "first hand accounts."
This may be the most controversial of what I perceive to be misconceptions, but hear me out. When I visit major institutions that organize primary sources by topic or event such as the Library of Congress, Docsteach, Stanford History Education Group, DPLA, and others, and I look at the sources that they identify as primary sources for a specific topic. There are countless cases where the source is not a "first hand account" of the topic it is identified under. These institutions, by their actions, if not by their definitions (and they vary) show that primary sources are not always first hand accounts.
I usually think of a definition as something static and unchanging. I think I should be able to break out the dictionary from my youth and the definition I read there should suffice. That has never quite worked for the definition of a primary source. Instead, my definition has evolved from a list of formats to others' definitions to my own. It likely will continue to evolve to inform my own understanding.