Primary Sources: History, Ethics, and Commodities

Several aspects of the historian’s general treatment of traditional historical documents has occupied significant mental energy lately.

Items such as letters are generally not meant to be read by audiences en masse (or sold). Anne Frank’s diary was also not intended to be read by audiences (or sold by publishers) around the world (and was certainly not intended to be an account of the Holocaust, which it is not, despite common belief).

In my African American History class we talked about the following document today from Major Problems in African American History Volume I. How would the sender and receiver feel and/or the relatives and/or people who were in a similar condition feel that this letter, that their letter is being read in History classes around the country? It is vital to consider the original audience of letters and to recognize–even though the use of such sources is necessary per se to understand the past–that by using such private letters, for example, we are violating certain codes of deep personal space. It doesn’t matter if the person is deceased or not.


I also wonder how Dave Waldrop and his cousin would feel knowing this private communication is sold for public consumption in a book that goes for around $100. In ways, already rich White people (the publisher of the book) and the status quo are getting richer off of their supposed attempt to counter the status quo through this publication. If Waldrop were still alive should he get royalties from the sale of this book? Should his family get royalties? Why is the past “sold” in this way? 

I am also bothered by books that sell primary sources for $50-100 or more. I don’t mind the $3-5 versions of book-length primary sources. But virtually any primary source reader runs $50 to $100 and these sources are all available free on the Internet. Not to mention there aren’t that many differences book-to-book. Granted the books have edited versions of the primary sources and introductory comments providing context, but why should publishers (remember: authors don’t make money off of academic books) make so much money, essentially off the words of others. Why should we continue to buy and assign such books?

This is a large part of why I assign Weekly Packets of primary sources that I design instead of assigning a reader. I generally like to have students read full unedited/unabridged primary sources, so they get the full idea, but when needed I can easily edit a document. I can also provide introductory context, as needed. This saves students money, and doesn’t allow the status quo to make even more money off the words, thoughts, and actions of others.

Another thing that has been on my mind and is something we talked about in my United States History courses last week is the notion of gaze in Great Depression photography. Take a look at the following, which is one of many, many possible examples.

0057f3350b5e30e38a1310955a6f2896.jpgWhat is the rhetoric of this picture? What is the photographer’s gaze (and thus, the viewer’s)? Why was the picture taken and framed in the way that it was? Why weren’t they given a “makeover” before their picture was taken, for instance? How would these two Girls feel if they knew we (and History classes across the nation and world) studied a picture of them as an example of poverty and suffering in the Great Depression? Is it ethical to study such a photograph? Is it ethical to take a picture of people who are clearly suffering? How does the deliberate setup of the photo influence our interpretation of it? 

One final word about primary sources (for now!) – those we study were not designed to be examined in a History class, to be placed under a microscope, or designed to serve as historical stand-ins or exceptions. In ways, this is a profound example proving how everything and anything is History, but it also speaks to the power (and abuse?) historians have.