Some of the important sources of history are as follows:
All the material which has a direct bearing or can be any assistance in constructing the history of a particular period are called as historical facts or sources.
The historical sources can be of two types, i.e. Primary and Secondary Sources. A primary source is the evidence of an eye witness or mechanical device which was present at the time of the occurrence of an event.
It is the work of the historian to convert the scattered difficult primary evidences into coherent, intelligible secondary sources.
The secondary source is the evidence of someone who was not present at the time of occurrence of the event e.g., books written by historians. The secondary source is also of great historical importance to the historians. Although secondary source is itself dependent on primary sources.
A primary source may contain secondary information e.g., news papers are usually considered primary sources but the information provided by news paper is not all based on primary sources. Such as certain incidents reported by the paper may be such which the correspondent saw or in he actually took part while certain offer information may be based on official information or sources considered reliable.
The primary sources can be classified into the following categories:
(1) Contemporary Records:
These types of primary sources are in the form of the instruction documents, stenographic and phonographic records. The business and legal paper and autobiographies, etc. The instruction documents may be in the form of an appointment notification, and direction from foreign office to the ambassador etc. Generally such documents have very little chance of error but it is essential to ascertain their authenticity.
The Business and legal letters consists of the bills, journals, leases, wills, tax records which gives an insight into the working of the firms as well as the persons. The autobiographies are a credible source of history because they are very close to the events with which they deal and written by a person himself. These are non-prejudicial.
(2) Confidential Reports:
The confidential reports are not intended for general audience and are less reliable than the contemporary sources. These types of reports are generally in the forms of military and diplomatic dispatches, Journals, diaries or memoirs and personal letters.
(3) Public Reports:
The public reports are meant for general public and less reliable. There are three types of public reports and each possesses a different degree of reliability, such as— Newspaper reports and dispatches are more reliable which depends upon the agency from which it originated and the news paper in which it is published; Memoirs and autobiographies are another public reports which are written for the public at the close of the life when the memoirs of author is fading and are therefore, not very reliable and the official histories of the activities of government or business house are also an important kind of public reports. They possesses incriminating material and less reliable.
(4) Government Documents:
Numerous government documents are compiled which are also a source of vita! importance to the historians such as statistics about fiscal, census and vital matters which can be made use of by the historians. All these reports have first hand importance, but requires proper evaluation before the use.
(5) Public Opinion:
The public opinion as expressed in editorials, speeches, pamphlets, letter to editor are another important source available to the historian, But authenticity of this must be corroborated by other evidence because public opinion may not be always reliable,
(6) Folklores and Proverbs:
The folklores which reveals the stories of legendary heroes are also an important source of history. They tell us about the aspirations, superstitions and customs of the people among whom- the stories developed, e.g. “Alla-Uddal” the hero Rajputana.
To make the use of these folklores the historian should not only possess a thorough knowledge of the history of the period but also able to distinguish between the legendary and authentic elements. Similarly proverbs can give us an idea but scholar must have the thorough knowledge of the customs and traditions.
The primary sources can be of great help to the historian if he has acquire thorough knowledge of the background through the study of secondary sources, i.e. the works of the great and important historians of the proposed area and period of research. On the basis of this knowledge, he can utilize the contemporary document at relevant place and can correct the secondary sources.
As the historian draws his conclusions and generalizations on the basis of these documents and facts it is essential to check up the authenticity of the documents and facts. It is the duty of the historian to doubt every statement until it has been critically tested. This criticism can be of two types, i.e. External and Internal.
(1) External Criticism:
The ‘External Criticism’ is of a less intellectual type of criticism of the documents. It includes examinations of document like manuscripts, books, pamphlets, maps, inscriptions and monuments. The problem of authenticity of document arises more in case of manuscripts than the printed documents because the printed document have already been authenticated by the editor.
Historian has to resort to a number of tests to determine the authenticity of a particular document in his proposed area of research such as— ‘Authorship’ the first question while examining the authenticity of a document is its author. Even the anonymous writings can provide us useful and important knowledge. But the discovery of a author’s or writer’s name adds the authenticity of the information because of the character, connections and trust worthiness of author determines the authenticity.
Secondly, “Date of Document”, i.e. the time, place of publication of the document must be inquired to determine the authenticity of the document. In the modern publications year and place of publication is indicated on the book or document on the title page or back side (over leaf). However in old manuscript where the data and place are absent it can be found out from the language or from the date of birth and death of author.
Thirdly, the historian confronts with the textual errors which may be either unintentional or deliberately committed. Unintentional error can take place in the copies of the documents (originals are not available). These mistakes may be caused by the scribe, typist or printer.
An intention error may creep in when effort is made to modify, supplement or continue the original. This problem can be overcome through textual criticism. Under this technique effort is made to collect as many copies of dubious text as possible and they are compared.
If the ideas and style do not match or resemble the idea and style of the author it can be safely assumed that they were not parts of the original manuscript and were forged by the later ones. Further’ more, the textual accuracy can be solved with the help of “sciences auxiliary” to history such as “Paleographists” have authenticated numerous documents of the medieval period by their handwritings and have published easily legible printed versions.
The “archaeologists” provides rich information to the historians, the “numismatists” by dating the coins, metals and deciphering their inscriptions render valuable assistance. Fourthly, after the confirmation of authenticity of the sources historians confronted with the different terms used in document.
The meaning of words often changes from generation to generation. Therefore historian must find out the meaning and sense in which it has been used in document. The misinterpretation of terms may lead to misunderstanding of the historical development.
In this way, even after the historian established the authenticity of the documents and discovered the meaning of the text his duty is not over. He is confronted with the another important problem the credibility of document.
(2) Internal Criticism:
While collecting the material, it must be remembered that a document contains the idea of the man who wrote. A historian must analyse the contents of the documents with a view to determine the real meaning. He must try to avoid the laps such as avoid the reading into meaning which author did not mean to convey, etc., and make a sincere effort to find out the facts even if they are contrary to his set notions and theories.
He must be able to understand the literal and real meaning of the document which is termed as ‘Positive Criticism’. It reveals us with the author’s conceptions and general notion which he represents. On other hand, historian sometimes come across documents which contradict each other. Hence the need of eliminating statements and facts which are obviously wrong and false arises.
Therefore, historians have come to hold the view that all that cannot be proved must be temporarily regarded as doubtful because of the incompetency and unreliability of the author which prevents him from telling the truth even when he knows. To assess the correctness of the fact, historian must ascertain whether author had opportunity to know the facts as an eyewitness or not.
What was his source of information and how much time elapsed between the event and the record? But the dependable testimony depends on a number of factors such as ability and willing to tell the truth, accuracy of report and independent corroboration. However, it may be noted that there is a possibility that a skilful liar may deliberately create the condition, i.e. ability and willing to tell the truth with accuracy to establish the credibility of his statements.
Therefore, in those cases the credibility must not be accepted without proper investigation. Moreover, if there is agreement between documents, we cannot draw the conclusion that the facts are definitive but we must ensure that the facts are harmonious and prove each other are interconnected.