Thinking about Sources for a Western Civilization Textbook

Last week I talked a bit about putting together a proposal for an un-textbook designed for an active-learning style Western Civilization class. The proposal is probably never going to amount to anything “real,” but it is designed to pull together various notes and ideas from my four semesters of teaching Western Civilization I in a Scale-Up style classroom

The little section below doesn’t really do the larger project justice. The goal of the class has been to get the students involved in writing history from the very first week. To get them going, however, I need to introduce some basic technical vocabulary (primary and secondary sources, chronological systems) and some basic tools (working in groups). I’ll bring these components into my chapters as I go (and maybe later today).


Sources are at the heart of any historical work. Historians divide their sources into two kinds. This division is largely arbitrary but it nevertheless reflects two different ways of thinking about the past.

Primary sources are sources more or less contemporary with the time in which they describe. A newspaper is a primary source. A law code is a primary source. A ancient inscription on stone is a primary source. Tweets and Facebook posts produced during an important public event like the Super Bowl or Presidential election night. As long as the document describes a contemporary event, it is a primary source.

Secondary sources are works that bring together primary sources usually to advance an argument. A history textbook, like the one that you will write in this class, is a secondary source. Articles in Wikipedia or by professional historians are secondary sources as well. These sources use primary sources to advance arguments about events in the past.

While this distinction is obvious is its most simplified form, things get more complicated in practice. For example, an ancient work of literature, like the epic poems of Homer or the history of Tacitus – are primary sources as well for the period in which they were written, but secondary sources for the period that they describe. The same might apply to, say, a history textbook written in the 1930s which described European politics before WWII. It is a primary source for attitudes toward, say, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but a secondary source when it pulls together sources for European political history between WWI and WWII.

Primary and secondary sources should be read in different ways. Primary sources are generally read to understand something about a past culture. They might provide some basic information – like who was in ruling a state – or insights into social situations – like whether women could own a tavern. Some primary sources provide us a kind of “factual” information on the past. For example, census record can give us an idea of how many people lived in a community at a particular time. Reports from a battlefield can tell us what units participated in an campaign. At the same time, primary sources can also provide us with an idea of how people thought about their world in the past. For example, census records can tell us who the state counted and why. Political records can tell us why a political leader acted as he or she did. This kind of information can help us understand what people in the past valued, how they understood political power to function, and what motivated them to behave in certain ways. To extract that information, however, primary sources must be read carefully and critically. Always ask yourself what a document say as well as why is says is.

Secondary sources should also be engaged in a critical way. Works written by professional historians, like your textbooks, draw upon primary sources to make arguments, but this doesn’t mean that the professional historian can’t be wrong. It is always smart to go back to the primary sources to make sure that even the best professional historian has made a convincing argument. To facilitate this, professional historians use footnotes and cite the sources that they use allowing readers to track them down. Become a careful reader of footnotes and always ask yourself how the author of a secondary sources supports his or her arguments.

For secondary sources like Wikipedia, an extra level of scrutiny is necessary. These sources sometimes cite their primary sources or cite other secondary sources, but the authors are often not as careful. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is useless resource. For basic information – names, dates, and places – Wikipedia is unparalleled, but for historical arguments and analysis, it should be used with great caution.

That being said, read all secondary and primary sources carefully.

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