Sources is history, history is sources. Without sources, there would not be history- without history, there would not be sources. It should become quite clear how interlinked these two things are. The Area of Knowledge History relies heavily on the studying, understanding and analysis of these so called sources. Before we even properly started the IB History High course, our teacher presented us with a variety of sources, asking us to comment on their reliability. First of all, sources are described as including books, newspapers, printed documents, personal papers, and other archival records, artifacts, and oral accounts that give insight on occurrings of the past.
What was interesting was the fact that the whole class had big difficulties understanding why some written pieces of work might not be true at all. It is hard to judge the truth of something, when you’ve never actually saw any reason for doubting it. Problems arise again. Our first topic in history “Chinese History” is a critical topic. One of the problems when studying Mao’s China is that of obtaining such reliable sources. In China there has always been the tendency to see the past as it has affected the present. Under Mao the media was always controlled, so many of the sources that we use to study China are western. The immediate question is: “how reliable is Western historiography when dealing with Chinese History”? Further knowledge issues emerge. “Is it possible for a person to write a reliable account or book about something which they have never experienced themselves”? “Were the sources that the authors used for gaining knowledge reliable”?
When looking at sources, we found out that we had to take great care. Many were unreliable, some contained false information, some were plain and simple biased. The best way to attempt to see if something written is correct is to identify the author, year of publication, purpose of text and place of publication. Issues arise when identifying these things. Thinking about these issues might result in following questions: “did the author have first hand experience of the matter described or told, or was she far away?”, “is the author simply retelling gossip or actual occurings?”, “how soon after the event was the source written?”, “did the author have an particular standpoint and is this highlighted in the account?” and “are there competing versions of the source?”.
All these questions should really be answered before deciding that something is correct or incorrect. The question of “how soon after the event was the source written” (by an eye-witness) is usually especially important. For example, there may be discrepancies between what a naval captain writes in the ship’s log-book immediately after a battle, the report that he files when he gets back to port and what he writes many years later in his memoirs.
The authors name might also give indications on his attitude towards the events. If for example China was fighting the US and the author’s name was Chinese, it might well be the case that he would be supporting anything the Chinese government proposed, thus writing negatively about the common enemy, the US. Also, the place of publication can prove to be valuable. If a Japanese diary was published in New York, thirty years after a certain event, you might ask yourself, how did it get there and why is it being published in New York, is it maybe because some publishers want to make big money from an edited story?
When information is published inside other books such as history textbooks, a few other knowledge issues spring up: “Who published the book or article? (In other words, was the book published by a reputable scholarly publishing house; did the article appear in a respected journal)?”, and “Is the book or article obsessed with a particular point of view?” Another helpful tip is checking what the author’s standing/reputation in the academic community is. If the author is a professor at Harvard University, we can assume that he is knowledgeable about his subject. This is so called expertise in an area of knowledge.