RSS Feed

The reliability of sources


August 14, 2016 by cathyk

While I was collecting sources for my history IA on Canadian residential schools, I came across a memoir—They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School—written by a former student from a residential school. When the writer, Bev Sellars, articulates the abuses and injustices she had encountered at St. Joseph’s Mission, as a history student who is trained to have a skeptical mind, I can’t help but question the veracity of Sellars’s account.

The knowledge question that came to me was: To what extent are primary sources reliable?

Primary sources, like memoirs, are evidence produced by eye-witnesses. Readers believe Sellars for the account she gives in They Called Me Number One because she had directly experienced this part of history. Truly, how can we learn history better than from the words of eye-witnesses? Leopold von Ranke, a German historian from the 19th century, claimed that people should rely on primary sources because they “tell the truth” more, as secondary sources written by historians are often prejudiced. However, in what ways can primary sources be unreliable?

Primary sources, such as Sellar’s memoir, are written based on authors’ memories. They Called Me Number One was published in 2012, years after Sellar had left St. Joseph’s Mission, so what if her memory has deteriorated? Sellars’s writing is based on episodic memory: facts and information about the past; in this case, her personal experiences in residential schools decades ago. However, memory recollection is a creative process, it’s “constructive, dynamic and selective”. In her work, she could be ‘selective’ and just write about the negative aspects of residential schools instead of telling the reader the whole picture. Other than the selectiveness of memory, there is also a great time span between the acquisition of her memory (her experiences in her residential school in the 1960s) and the retrieval of these memories (when she writes this book in 2000s).  Throughout these decades, some of her memories have faded while others have been altered, perhaps by new experiences or knowledge. Moreover, memory is heavily influenced by emotion. Because Sellars was emotionally traumatised and has a deep-rooted aversion towards residential schools, these emotions may cause her to exaggerate the hardships she encountered. These exaggerations can be seen through her use of language—such as the words ‘atrocities’ and ‘abuses’. By adding feelings and beliefs, Sellars could have ‘reconstructed’ her memories.

While on the topic of primary sources, I thought about another type of historical evidence: secondary sources. And another knowledge question is: How reliable are secondary sources, and does its reliability differ from that of primary sources?

Secondary sources are accounts written afterwards of an event by historians who make inferences and interpretations based on their own knowledge and experiences. Instead of saying that historians are biased, it would be more accurate to say that they choose their sources selectively—they may select material from some primary sources, while neglecting others, to bolster their arguments. This type of sources is created by a combination of reason, emotion, imagination and language. First of all, reason gives writers the ability to analyse primary sources and develop their own conclusions. Emotion plays a role in this process because the writer may empathise with an event or a group of victims. Imagination allows the writer to fill in ‘gaps’ between the records they have access to and bind events together plausibly. Finally, writer’s use of language is the means through which their view can be conveyed to readers. Different words that can describe an event can have a completely different impact on readers. For instance, some may use the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ to label the Holocaust, while others call it a genocide.

While some argue that secondary sources are unreliable compared to primary ones because they are somewhat prejudiced, in what ways are secondary sources reliable? Secondary sources have the benefit of hindsight, which means that in hindsight, people can evaluate history with more time and a more objective, dispassionate mind. Also, people have more access to evidence to write their secondary sources. And in order for a piece of secondary source to be credible, the historian who writes it also has to meet the standards set by the academic community—this confirms that the historian is reliable too.

Some say that history is created from “imperfections of memory and inadequacies of documentation”—there are no absolute truths. We should keep a skeptical mind when we study history and try to look at all perspectives from both primary and secondary sources.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar