I’m a professor at Virginia Tech, writing a book that explores what home canning has meant in the United States, and why—and I conceived Sourcethink as a blog to help me work through some of the many objects and documents I’ve encountered in my research.
A primary source is something you analyze for meaningful patterns, using observations about related details, interesting contrasts, and even surprising omissions as evidence for conclusions about why that thing matters, and to whom. Every kind of human communication—a stretch of graffiti, a ticket stub, a photograph, a snatch of conversation, a magazine advertisement, a telephone book—can be used as a primary source.
On this site, I observe, reflect, and ask questions that stem from a single primary source—what we might call an “exhibit source.” For example, here you can find posts that grew from investigating a recipe, a sentence from an interview, a package of jam jar covers, a book illustration, and other bits of everyday life.
First, I try to discover who created the source and when, then use details in the source itself to start thinking about why it exists and what it does. Next, I work to put that text in context: I turn to other resources that help me understand the exhibit source in terms of its historical, technological, and social environments. Throughout, I’m interested in how these sources illuminate today’s issues and questions.
• For examples of primary source types, see the documents associated with this George Mason University unit on the Puerto Rican Women’s Labor Movement.
• Julie Miller, a manuscript specialist at the Library of Congress, used one of George Washington’s laundry receipts as a springboard for learning about the life of Martha Morris, a Black laundress in New York City. For some of the questions that focused Miller’s research, see her blogpost.
• For help analyzing your own sources, see the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis tool (click on “?” for sample questions to answer)