[FPSPACE] Correction to my own book, re: Viking
zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Thu Aug 25 19:09:10 EDT 2005
From: David M Harland <dave.harland at ntlworld.com>
Sent: Aug 25, 2005 6:30 PM
>>Second, the fact that an error in a book can then get repeated again
>and again over decades should be a good warning to authors that they
>should USE PRIMARY SOURCES (no apologies for the screaming).
>Ah, but what is a primary source?
This is usually taught to people in college. Certainly in grad school. It is not a case of knowing it when you see it. There is a good and simple definition.
Simply put, a primary source is generated by the persons actually involved in the event itself. Documents are primary sources. Recordings of the events (and thus transcripts) are primary sources as well. Anything produced by someone who is interpreting the events (a journalist, a historian) is a secondary source.
Memoirs are a special case. I would not consider them to be true primary sources.
> When I wrote my book about the
Gemini program and said that it was based on primary source material,
I was pointedly informed that mission transcripts are not primary
Pointedly informed by whom?
Of course, simply using a primary source doesn't satisfy all the requirements of good research. Primary sources can be incomplete. They can be inaccurate. They can even (gasp!) lie.
Certainly a good historian is wary of the pitfalls of both memoirs and oral histories. They can be misleading, self-serving, or just plain _off_, frequently telling history "as I thought it happened" or "as I want people to think that it happened." And generally these are not contemporaneous but are produced years later, when memory has failed or transformed events.
But even documents can lie. For instance, there is the classic case of the "cover your ass" memo that is written and then filed without ever being sent anywhere. This can then be pulled out and used to demonstrate that Mr. X warned everybody of the dangers of policy Y and is therefore a hero. And history is filled with examples of underlings writing obsequious or duplicitous reports to their superiors. I believe that this was often a problem for both Hitler and Stalin during World War II, when neither could get accurate reports from their military commanders because the commanders feered their bosses.
And then there is the danger of Elephant Description Syndrome. It's like that old story about six blind men trying to describe an elephant, with each describing it based upon his one small experience of it--a long trunk, a thick leg, a thin tail, a rough flank, etc. You have to be wary of getting an objective, unbiased, detailed description that is told from a single narrow point of view.
As an example of the latter I can point to the history of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, where various high-ranking people were reportedly "shocked" when it was canceled. Yet others have told me that the program had been squeeking by in danger of getting canceled for several years, and that there had been at least two high-level reviews of the program that recommended its cancelation. The people who were shocked were only seeing one small bit of what was going on, even though they were near the top of the program.
So simply utilizing primary sources is insufficient. They have to be balanced against each other, with the conscientious historian acknowledging where things do not fit.
Of course, this is a good policy for everybody, not just historians.
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