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What is a "primary source"?

The question of evidence in South Asian history writing


What is a primary source?

What is an archive?


Both of the answers to these questions depend on what one considers History to be






Different histories have different archives; the important point is that the state archive (e.g., the British Library; the Public Record Office) is not the only option.

Instead: private libraries; public libraries with collections of private papers

What about the Internet? Is this an archive?

What about published resources (aka "secondary literarature")- is this an archive?

The source needs to fit the question.


An example: Report and Proceedings of the Second All-India Population and First Family Hygiene Conference (1938) on a First Search/WorldCat fishing expedition led to Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India, 1920-1940.

And some images: Lodhra, etc.


How is an image an archive?


And an ending: Towards an essay

What should a primary source essay do?

In essence, it should be an essay around a primary source (defined broadly).

In order to do this, you need to present a brief "biography" of the source as part of your introduction. By whom was it written/produced? Where did it appear? When? Who would have been included in the likely readership?

But do not dwell on this for more than a paragraph or two -- the essay must quickly move on to the meat of the matter!

Your essay should situate critically the primary source in relation to published, related research. It should raise questions about the primary source in light of the published research. It can be exploratory (that is, it the essay, you can raise more questions than you are able to answer), but it must have an argument. What is your "take" on the source? Why?

Defend this "reading" using available published research. Does the published research describe a relationship or dynamic between power and knowledge that you can also observe in the source? Alternatively, does the source (or an aspect of it) contest something we have read in this module?