What are primary sources?
In a nutshell, primary sources are the raw records of history. They are materials created around the same time as historical events. Depending on the event, they can include diaries, letters, newspaper articles, books, government records, meeting notes, paintings, (or for more recent events) photographs, interviews, audio recordings, video recordings, and even blog posts or tweets. The key is that they need to have been created during or shortly after the historical event by people with first-hand experience or knowledge of it.
And what makes primary sources so fascinating? Well, let’s look at an actual example.
An Example of a Primary Source (government document)
You’ve probably heard that the US government classified many Japanese-Americans as "enemy aliens" and sent them to concentration camps during World War II. The decision to do so was made by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued Executive Order 9066 to that effect on February 19, 1942. All of this is information you can find in standard textbooks or even a quick Google search.
But Roosevelt probably didn’t know a lot of Japanese-Americans personally, much less about their loyalty to the country as a group, so he must have based his decision on information that was given to him. What kind of information―or misinformation―led FDR to issue that fatal command in 1942?
Of course, unless we can virtually reconstruct Roosevelt’s brain, we can never know the exact truth. But we can make informed guesses by examining some of the material he had access to around that time. And luckily, a lot of such material survives in places like the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
Below is a screenshot from a report FDR received from Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, on December 14, 1941, a week after the Pearl Harbour attack. The report was taken from a digitised collection of former White House documents housed in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. You can access the entire 20-page document from the link here.
PSF: Departmental File Navy July-December 1941. July 1941 - December 1941. MS Japanese American Internment: Records of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library: Internment of Japanese Americans: Records of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Archives Unbound, link.gale.com/apps/doc/SC5113839813/GDSC?u=asiademo&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=1a66894d&pg=2.
This is a nice example of a primary source. There is a handwritten note scribbled on the top of the page, which you may be able to decipher (with a little bit of patience) as, “1941 / Given me by F.K. 10 p.m. Dec 14 when he landed here from Hawaii / FDR” which helps determine exactly when the President received it. The rest of the document was typed, so it’s slightly easier to read than the handwriting, although some parts may be a bit difficult to read due to the uneven printing. Some parts may be difficult to understand, either due to some obscure words, special terminology, or the lack of contextual information. After all, you are eavesdropping on a private communication between two high-ranking people from more than eighty years ago. But despite all that, I hope you can feel the excitement of seeing the same document that FDR had in his hands at a crucial moment in world history.
Detail from the first page of the report showing Roosevelt’s handwritten notes.
You will also notice that in my screenshot, the word “Japanese” is highlighted in green. That was the keyword I used to find this document in the digital collection. The numbers “2 3 5 6 7 …” that you see on the left of the document indicate the page images where that keyword appears. This search functionality, enabled by a technology called OCR (Optical Character Recognition), is another thing that makes digitised primary sources like this so fun to use. Not only do you never have to leave your room to view a document that’s locked up in a remote library in upstate New York, but you can even search through all its pages for whatever word comes to your mind.
Let’s try searching for a different word within this same document. If you have the document open, type the word “alien” in the box that says “Search within document” and hit Enter. This should return two document pages―3 and 12―that refer to “alien Japanese”. Let’s look at the latter page. It contains a paragraph that says:
Detail from page image 12 of the same.
"It cannot be too strongly emphasized that there was available to the enemy in Oahu probably the most efficient fifth column to be found anywhere in the American possessions, due to the presence of very large numbers of alien Japanese. The intelligence work done by this fifth column before the attack, provided the Japanese Navy with exact knowledge of all necessary details to plan the attack. This included exact charts showing customary position of ships when in Pearl Harbor, exact location of all defenses, gun…”
Here, Frank Knox is emphasizing that the Pearl Harbour attack was made possible by the “very large number of Japanese” in the region, implying that many of them constituted a “fifth column”, or in other words, were spies.
So, did this report influence FDR’s decision to issue Executive Order 9066 two months later? We shouldn’t leap to conclusions just by looking at a single document, of course. Historians typically examine many primary sources before even attempting to conclude. However, this document looks like it might be an important piece for solving that puzzle.
Example of primary source (newspaper)
Primary sources don’t just come from famous people in power like presidents and military leaders. The below example is a newspaper. It’s a special kind of newspaper, though, one that was published in a Japanese-American internment camp in Topaz, Utah, called the Topaz Times.
Topaz Times. Vol. 1, No. 3-50, Sept 17, 1942 - December 31, 1942. N.p., September 17 - December 31, 1942. Archives Unbound, link.gale.com/apps/doc/SC5103683313/GDSC?u=asiademo&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=34774bdc&pg=11.
The document here contains issues from September 17 to December 31, 1942. The Topaz War Relocation Center was opened in September 1942, so these issues are from the earliest months of confinement for the Japanese Americans sent there. As you flip the pages, you will notice that unlike “ordinary” newspapers, there are no big headlines of world events or glamorous celebrity scandals. Instead, there are many sections containing practical information to help orient newcomers to life in the camp, such as its geographical location, when dining halls will open, the safety of drinking water, how to participate in agricultural projects, fire prevention tips, etc. There is also some entertainment in the form of a comic strip that perhaps helped uplift their mood somewhat.
If these details may seem rather mundane to us, we should remember they were vital for the people living there back then, and they provide historians with valuable insight into what life inside the camp was actually like. This is a very different document from the presidential report that we saw earlier. But such records of day-to-day life in historical places can also be considered primary sources.
What Are Secondary Sources?
As mentioned earlier, historians carefully examine multiple primary sources to come up with a narrative describing, reconstructing, or interpreting historical events. Such narratives are called “secondary sources” because they are one level removed from the primary sources. They are also, by definition, written after the events described. Secondary sources are published in many different formats, including papers at academic conferences, articles in scholarly journals, full-length books or book chapters, or other media such as blogs or websites.
Secondary sources, written from the vantage point of the present, can help you gain a better understanding of the historical context of the primary sources, which in turn allows you to gain better insights into the material. For instance, to understand Frank Knox’s report to FDR, it would be better to have more than a cursory understanding of the facts of the Pearl Harbour attack. Or it may be better to know a bit about the Japanese internment, and if possible, about the Topaz camp before reading pages of the Topaz Times. And luckily for you, a lot of such secondary sources are also available from Gale, from within the same page.
If you go back to the two primary sources that I showed to you earlier and look at the left-hand side of each document, you will notice there is a section called “Related Resources” containing several hyperlinked titles.
For instance, the Fred Knox document shows several links to articles from different publications about the Pearl Harbour attack (first screenshot), while the Topaz Times document has related articles from a book called Documents of Japanese American Internment (second)1. While only the top three links are shown by default, you can display even more by clicking “View All Related Articles”.
Each of these links takes you to a related article in a separate platform called Gale eBooks. As you can see from the publication year after each title (2013, 2016, 2020, etc.), these are all written long after the event in question, hence they are secondary sources that might help you better understand the document.
For example, this document linked from the Frank Knox report provides a detailed explanation of the political and strategic contexts of the Pearl Harbour attack. It also contains a map showing key locations and fighter plane routes which may help understand some of the operational details contained in Knox’s document.
SODERSTRUM, JASON T. "Pearl Harbor, Attack on (December 7, 1941)." World War II: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, vol. 3, ABC-CLIO, 2016, pp. 1311-1314. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX7128701155/GVRL?u=asiademo&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=0e1b2cb9.
The Topaz Times has a link to this document that not only transcribes the first article from the inaugural September 17, 1942 issue of that newspaper, but also contains valuable background information on the camp and its surroundings, the centre director and chaplain, the camp’s relationship with the locals, and other details that will definitely help you understand the contents of the paper better.
"Document 2.9 Charles F. Ernst and Rev. Taro Goto, Topaz Times, 1942." Documents of Japanese American Internment, edited by Linda L. Ivey and Kevin W. Kaatz, ABC-CLIO, 2020, pp. 79-82. Eyewitness to History. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX8058000028/GVRL?u=asiademo&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=205baac7.
While these linked secondary sources are useful, they are by no means the only resources you should be consulting―the more resources you read, the better you can understand each document. To help you find additional resources, many of these secondary sources end with “Further Reading” sections, pointing you to other material you may want to consult. For these, you can search your library catalogue or consult your librarian to see if they can locate them for you.
Ibid., “Further Reading” section
When Secondary Sources disagree
When looking at secondary sources, it is easy to fall under the impression that everything written there is objectively correct, definite, and indisputable. It could be because they were written long after the event, or because the authors are often title-carrying scholars from famed universities. Well ... not always; and that’s another reason why primary sources can be fascinating.
For example, below is another secondary source related to Japanese Internment during World War II. This article was taken from a Gale publication called History in Dispute (2000), which is a unique series that collects different interpretations―sometimes opposed―by multiple scholars on controversial historical events. It begins with a short overview essay that gives the general background of the controversy, followed by two very different interpretations of Japanese Internment.
O’Brien, Patric, and A. Bowdoin Van Riper. "Japanese Internment: Was the Internment of Japanese Americans Justified During World War II?" History in Dispute, edited by Robert J. Allison, vol. 3: American Social and Political Movements, 1900-1945: Pursuit of Progress, St. James Press, 2000, pp. 102-109. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2876300021/GVRL?u=asiademo&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=f35bb43c.
Scholar Patric O'Brien's essay is written from the viewpoint that the internment of Japanese Americans was an unfortunate but necessary measure for national security.
In contrast, A. Bowdoin Van Riper's essay takes the opposite position, arguing that the internment of Japanese Americans cannot be justified.
As you can see from the above two examples, the passage of time does not necessarily mean that different views converge into a single authoritative “history”. Historians continue to argue and disagree about interpretations of key events, or even the existence of some historical figures or occurrences. However, one thing is for sure―whatever their position, they need to back up their arguments with primary sources.
A. Bowdoin Van Riper, who argues that the internment was unjust, writes, “Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox stated, a week after the Pearl Harbor attack, that fifth-column activity by local Japanese had been crucial to the attack's success.” Sound familiar? Yes, most likely he is referring to the Frank Knox report that I cited earlier.
Whether you agree or disagree with Professor Van Riper’s argument here, you should try to access and examine the actual primary sources 1) to verify that he is not making things up, and 2) to read the entire document in its original context to see if you agree with his interpretation. And if you can discover other primary sources that shed a different light on the same event, you might even be able to arrive at your conclusions.
Of course, it is probably difficult for mere amateurs like us to beat the pros in their own game, but by exposing yourself to primary sources, you can understand the process through which historical narratives are built, and experience first-hand the joys and hazards of interpreting raw history as it was unfolding. And although it’s a bit too late for me, who knows, it might help you get better grades, too!
1 The documents shown here may differ according to the Gale resources available to your institution.