One of the first things that any historian learns is the difference between primary and secondary research sources. In order to evaluate any historical research, you must evaluate the sources used to complete that research. Even if you’re a history enthusiast and read history, it’s valuable to be able to critically assess the sources used by the author.
Primary sources are created at the time of the event you’re researching. They can be diaries, letters, artwork, photos, newspaper articles, etc. That doesn’t mean this information is factual. The people creating these sources could have their own biases and agendas, which means historians have to actually analyze these sources rather than simply taking them at face value.
Secondary sources are created by interpreting primary sources. Two different historians could each write a book about Woodstock based on the same original film footage. One of them may write about how Woodstock was the birth of a new culture of freedom and love, while the other may rant about those immoral hippies and how the decline of morality began with Woodstock. The film footage, created at the time of the event, is the primary source. Both books, created after the event using original film footage, are secondary sources based on the author’s interpretation of the primary source.
Here is an example of a real primary source. While we lived in England, I was able to attend three England international soccer matches at Wembley stadium, against Northern Ireland, Denmark and Argentina. Because my mother is a very organized woman, I still have the programs and ticket stubs from those matches.
I’m not posting the programs because they are way too long for this post. However, I do want to note that my daughter laughs at the photos of the short shorts the players wore in those days, which means she’s learning fashion history. And we both thought it was amusing that these sports programs had cigarette ads on the back cover. Only 35 years ago, but still another time.
The ticket stubs from those three matches are primary sources, created at the time of the events. Certain bits of factual information about the stubs and the venue are readily available and not open to interpretation. The Wembley Stadium I visited in 1979 and 1980 was closed in 2000, torn down and rebuilt, and opened as the new Wembley Stadium in 2007.
Although they are in different areas of the stadium, all three tickets are for standing enclosures, the “cheap seats”, which can give you some insight into the buyer. Each ticket is a different price, but I don’t know if the prices increased with time, or were based on either the importance of the match or the section of the stadium. I just checked ticket prices for the England versus Switzerland match at Wembley on September 8, 2015 and comparable seats are £35-55. So the pricing and seating are valid topics to research using these stubs as a primary source.
My favorite thing about the stubs are the statements on the back. It’s easy to forget that modern technology is so incredibly modern, until you see something like this. The ticketholder
“shall not take a Camera or photographic apparatus or recording apparatus of any description into the Stadium, nor shall the holder take any cinematograph picture or photograph or recording of any kind.”
By purchasing a ticket, you agree to the
“right of Wembley Stadium Limited to confiscate any camera and/or photographic or recording apparatus, film or plates or tapes”.
All hail the cell phone!
Even with a primary source as seemingly simple and easy to interpret as ticket stubs, there are still some questions that are open to interpretation. To me, they are a memory of a time that I remember and understand. To a young historian, things are not as obvious. So imagine how difficult it is to interpret a primary source from 100 or 1,000 years ago.