What are the chief sources of historical research?

To produce a standard research work which may be called a scholarly writing is not very easy. It not only requires the intelligence of the researcher but also the authenticity of the data collected by him. Different sources need to be tackled by the research in order to create a fine piece of research work. Sometimes a large number of fragmentary evidences are to be used and they are not available in one single book only. All the material which helps in constructing the history of a particular period is termed as source. G.R. Elton aptly remarks, “Historical research does not consist as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting review of every thing that may conceivable be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence”.

Primary and Secondary Sources of Data Collection

The historical sources of data collection can be divided in two categories (i) Primary and (ii) secondary. A primary source of data is one that the researcher or scholar has created himself by his own effort. We can also say that primary sources are original. No researcher can be called a competent and authentic historian unless he has worked in primary source materials. As regards the secondary sources, we can say that it is the testimony of someone who was not present at the time of happening of the event. The books written by different historians are put in the category of secondary sources. In fact, the significance of the secondary sources is not, less important than the primary ones.

In fact it is necessary for a researcher that he must go through all the secondary sources before the collection of the primary data. It will save duplicacy of work. Making a difference between the primary and secondary sources a well known scholar A. Marwick writes, “The primary source is the raw material, more meaningful to the expert historian than to the laymen; the secondary source is the coherence work of history, article, dissertation or book, in which both the intelligent layman and the historian who is venturing upon a new research topic, or keeping in touch with new discoveries in his chosen field or seeking to widen his general historical knowledge, will look for what they want”. It depends on the purpose of the research whether a data collected is primary or secondary. Sometimes a data collected can also be regarded as the primary and secondary source. A primary source can also be used as a secondary source. The news papers are usually considered to be a primary source but the information given in the paper are not completely based on primary sources, therefore they belong to secondary source.

Primary Sources of Data Collection

From the point of view of research or the establishment of a new theory, the primary source is more important than the secondary source because it contained original ideas or facts in it. Generally a hand written document is supposed to be more authentic than a typed one as it relates and indicates close relationship between the researcher and event. But Prof. A. Marwick does not agree to it, he writes that some times a printed document is of great value. A document written in one man’s handwriting may be a genuine record of transactions which actually took place, or a record in good faith of a statement dictated by one-man to another, or the record of a collective decision, or it may be a complete invention on the part of the writer. It will in any case yield answers to only certain questions; if what one requires is final statement of government policy or particular issue, the printed documents may well prove a much more valuable primary source. Actually it is very difficult to draw a line of demarcation between the primary and the secondary source material. Some time it seems to be so faint that it becomes difficult for a researcher to declare it primary or secondary. But it is sure that both of them help a scholar in establishing the history of the particular period. An autobiography can be both a primary and secondary source when viewed from the point of view of the philosophy of the writer and important event of the period respectively.

Contemporary Records

Prof. Gottschalk writes, “A contemporary record is a document intended to convey instructions regarding a transaction or to aid the memory of the persons immediately involved in the transaction”. An appointment letter, an order on the battle field, a direction from foreign office to the ambassador etc., are some significant documents for are searcher. These papers have no doubt about their authenticity and there is no chance of error. However a researcher should satisfy himself before making its use. The stenographic and phonographic records are also significant source material for a researcher. These records are important and valuable as they give us an insight into emotional stresses. The legal and business papers such as journals, bills, orders, tax records etc. not only provide an insight into the working of the firm but also acquaintus with the persons who are engaged in this work. These papers are general prepared by some experts hence they are greatly reliable and there is very less fear of deceitment in them. Some of the famous persons are in the habit of maintaining a private diary or note book and they keep in them the record of his day to day activities. These note books are also trustworthy record from the historical point of view. There is no chance of being prejudice in these private memoranda, hence they are considered very significant from the historical point of view.

Confidential Reports

The confidential reports are not meant for general masses. They are not as reliable as the contemporary records because they are written after the event had taken place. The personal letters are also a credible source of history. Such letters are written in a very polite way and they are full of esteem. They may mislead a fresher who is not fully aware with the art of letter writing. Sometimes these letters do not provide correct information; hence a researcher has to read between the lines in order to find out the hidden meaning of the writer on the letter.

Public Reports

The public reports are not as important and reliable as the confidential reports. The Public Reports are usually divided into three parts and each of them has a different degree of reliability.

  1. The reliability of a news paper or dispatch depends on the source from which it has been originated. If the newspaper or the journal in which the particular information is published is not reliable, it is of no importance. Butnow-a-days the newspapers not only on their correspondents but they also have agencies and syndicates for reports. Thus at present the newspaper reports and dispatches play a significant role in the field of research.
  2. Memoirs and autobiographies are also one the source material for are searcher. Though they are read and praised by many people however they can not be said to be a very reliable source. Usually the memories and autobiographies are writer by some eminent persons towards the close of their life. At this stage the memory of author cannot be as sharp as it was in the earlier days, hence he writes all these events of his life on the basis of diminishing memory so they cannot be trusted completely. Some of the autobiographies and memories are condemned and criticized by the other scholar on the basis of their shortcomings.
  3. One another kind of public report and source material is the official or authorized histories which are written on the basis of official records but they too should not be taken to be completely trustworthy as they are written by the scholars and historians who are employed by the government, hence their writings are to be read with due care. Whatever was written about the Second World War or the National Struggle of India by these hired scholars, it needs to be read between the lines before drawing any conclusion.

The Questionnaire Method

It is the most significant method of data collection. In this method the researcher prepare certain question pertaining to the subject of the project or thesis in order to get information and opinion on particular subject. The questionnaires provide the researcher a fund of information. He analyses and puts forth the final version to the readers. No doubt, this method of data collection is very significant but it is useful only for that scholar whose approach is critical otherwise all the labour of the researcher would go in vain.

Interview System

Besides the questionnaire method, the researchers also resorts to the interview system in order to draw some definite conclusions by taking interview of the contemporary or eyewitness persons. Through this system he has a desire to add something new to the existing knowledge of the subject. No doubt, meeting with such personalities is very tedious job and it requires a lot time and money to approach them but a sincere scholar tries to leave no stone unturned in order to find out some thing new.

Government Documents

The Government Documents also help a data collector to get some vital information for his project. They are usually compiled by the scholars and historians of great repute. The department of statistics prepares some very useful information about census, and fiscal policy of the country. This present information collected today becomes a useful source material for the historians of the tomorrow. In fact, government does not want to defame herself and provides only that information which highlights their policies and ignores all the information which indicates the failures and lapses of the government. So there is every possibility of hiding the facts and figures from the researcher. Therefore a researcher should be very alert at the time of collection of data but look into the ins and outs before reaching the final conclusion.

Public Opinions

Newspapers are also one of the significant sources of data collection. Historians and scholars of different parts of the world write their opinion in the editorials, speeches, and letters to the editor and pamphlets which are read and understood by the scholars. Besides them the public opinion polls are also an important source for collected data. But a historian must be very careful about the authenticity of the information because they are often deceptive. He should also consult some other evidence before making use of these sources. Besides the above mentioned sources, the literature of the contemporary period is also an important source material for the researcher. It is rightly said that the literature holds a mirror to the society. Therefore historians are capable to know about the social conditions, customs and tradition of the contemporary society through the literature, but some of the historians do not agree to this fact and they believe that history and literature both the polls apart. History is based on facts while literature is full of fiction and imagination, hence a researcher if he is making use of some literary work he must be very careful. Folklores and provers sometimes also prove to be a significant source material because they give a clear picture of the legendary heroes. They should also be studied very seriously and the facts and fictions amalgamated with one another must be removed so that a clear picture may be presented before the readers.

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