SJE glass Br Fer004

A vintage photo gives us an eyewitness view of Bristol Ferry circa 1900.

Historians divide the resources they use into “primary” and “secondary” sources.   To put it briefly, primary sources were created at the time of an event by people who had first hand knowledge.    Secondary sources contain second hand information created after the event by people who were not there.  Most secondary sources are written by people who have used primary sources and then woven them into a book or report.  The books by Edward West, Jim Garman and John Pierce that I mentioned in the previous blog are examples of secondary sources.  I often use secondary sources to help me understand the primary sources I am investigating.

Primary sources are at the heart of new historical research.  There are skills involved in using these sources, but they are skills that are developed from practice.  I am an amateur history detective, but I can share some tips I have learned from my own journey to understand Portsmouth history.  This is the overall object of this series of blogs.

Here are some examples of some of the primary sources that are important to discovering new information about life in Portsmouth.  We need volunteers to explore these primary sources and record the information they give us.

  • Objects: Tools, military items, household goods, clothing, vehicles (like the Willowbrook hearse or the mail wagon in our Old Town Hall).  At the Portsmouth Historical Society we need help in identifying and researching the hundred of items in our collection.
  • Places that remain much the same: like Glen Farm barns, the Glen itself, historical buildings like the Quaker Meeting House.  Landscapes and buildings have a story to tell us.  Students visiting the Southermost School get a unique feeling for what it was like to go to school during colonial times.
  • Geographic records: vintage maps, school district maps, charts, even place names Common Fence Point or Freeborn Street tell us who lived where and how the land was utilized.
  • Visual records: drawings/paintings, photographs, blue prints.  We have hundreds of vintage photographs in our collection.  These are “snapshots” of a moment in time in Portsmouth.
  • Written records: letters, diaries, laws, vintage books, trial records, public meetings (Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth), newspaper accounts from the time, inscriptions on gravestones, ads.   We have a trove of scraps of documents that need sorting and transcription.
  • People: Oral history and interviews of people who are sharing their experience of an event of time.  We need to interview native Portsmouth residents who have a wealth of knowledge about our town.  My students at Elmhurst interviewed the Camara sisters about growing up on Glen Farm and the videos of these interviews has been a goldmine of information for us.

I love using primary sources because I am finding my own clues and not dealing with someone’s opinions of what happened.  You are discovering your own answers as you look at a picture, examine a map, read a newspaper article or handle an object from the past.  The primary sources often lead to questions that secondary sources can help me resolve.