Thursday, March 2, 2017

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources! For a historian they are a gold mine of information. But just because something looks like a primary source doesn't mean it is. A case in point is the Southern States Mission Manuscript.  For those who don't know, this manuscript is a scrapbook of sorts. It pulls together in one place lots of different source materials, newspaper articles, mission newsletters, and lists of missionaries called, sent and returned. BUT, it is not a primary source. It is a mixture references to primary sources and reprints of secondary sources. It has holes, and is an example of the limitations of the medium. There are many things missing, mis-typed, or just plain wrong.

One example...

At the beginning of the second volume is a page that shows a diagram. Its a sort of Gantt chart that intends to display when the various conferences were part of the mission and when they were split off. But it is inaccurate in some places, and in one particular place totally wrong.

Of course, this is only a portion of the diagram. Along the left are the conferences, and along the top are the years (in this case 1875 to 1905). A solid line to the right of each conference indicates when the conference was in the mission and a note at the right of the line tells what conference or mission it was split off into. So the fourth one down is the Tennessee Conference which in 1881 was divided into the East Tenn and West Tenn Conferences.

And here is where my problem is. The last line on this image in the Southwest Pennsylvania conference. According to this it was part of the Southern States Mission from 1884 to 1887, when it became part of the Eastern States Mission. Truth be told I thought "Wow! That's kind of weird. But I guess if Ohio and Maryland can be in the Southern States mission why not Southwest Pennsylvania"

If, however, you were to look for a entry in the manuscript for Pennsylvania, you wont find one. Why? Cause it never happened. While creating the diagram, someone misread a notation as "Southwest Penn" when it should have read as "Southwest Tenn" with T. Indeed if you then look for the Southwest Tenn Conference, you will find many such references beginning in 1884 and ending in 1887.

Foremost of the mistakes was to extend the abbreviation. Had the person aggregating the data simply left the abbreviation as "Penn" someone else might have noticed the error and fixed it when it was originally written down. A less obvious secondary mistake was the assumption that the conference was absorbed into the Eastern States mission. While Pennsylvania was part of the eastern states mission, no such change happened in 1887.

There are other less obvious issues. But the issues aren't the point. There are always issues with secondary works. The point is that we should not rely upon secondary works for proof of facts, no matter how temping.

So what are your primary sources? And which of them are secondary at best?


Ardis said...

Nice catch, and useful reminder.

gscoulson said...

Sometimes my own journal feels like a secondary source because I'm not prompt in writing entries and end up summarizing. Even when I am prompt, I sometimes don't write the most important things. Some of the most powerful lessons I realized on my mission are recorded only in my head; when I read that day's entry I see the hourly events, but I didn't write down the takeaway lesson--maybe it took a while to sink in. I need to write a commentary on my life and compare what happened with what I remember and what I learned.

Amy T said...

That's amusing. A social psychologist I know calls that part of the state "Pennsytucky" so it would have worked historically, if it had really happened.

And does this mean you're starting to write the history of the Southern States Mission? (smiley emoticon)

BruceAllen said...

Thank you, Ardis. Does it mean something bad when I realize that I had noticed it once a couple years ago and then completely forgot abut it only to notice it again just last week? What else have I forgotten?

BruceAllen said...

GSCoulson, memory is a funny thing. But I'll vouch for your journal being a primary source.

BruceAllen said...

My sisters live in outside Louisville Kentucky on the Indiana side of the river. They go back and forth between calling the area Kentuck-iana and Indiyucky. The former seems more popular for some reason.

As for a written History of the Southern States Mission, that is an idea whose time may have come. But I dig in the weeds too much. I'd have to learn to let the weeds go. I don't know if I can do that.