Guidelines for working with Primary Sources
Historians construct narratives based on the items (letters, articles, maps, materials, stories, physical space, and more) created by the people who lived during the time of study. They must have a broader understanding of the time and place in order to interpret the documents and other artifacts left behind. They interpret those documents by taking a step back and thinking critically about what their subjects have written or produced. To be critical does not mean to be negative, but to ponder the actions and motives of the various individuals, given the broader historical context. This also means understanding the context of the document itself. For example, the historian, when interpreting The XIth Olympic Games, Berlin 1936 Official Report would take note that this document was produced by the organizing committee in Berlin. The Adolf Hitler quote on page 6, celebrating sport as “chivalrous” and awakening “the best human qualities,” followed by a quote from Coubertin remarking on the “great date” in history when Olympians enter the Berlin Stadium, could be understood as the Berlin Organizing Committee calling attention to what they saw to be the global support of Hitler and the Nazi project.
The producers of these “official” materials wanted to convey certain ideas about their city and nation’s “Olympic moment,” to be remembered in perpetuity. They understood their Olympic Games as an important event in world history. The assigned materials in the course provide good context for us to be able to interpret the official reports (for Paper 1) and official films (Paper 2) of the Olympic Games. Draw upon this broader knowledge as you interpret these official materials.
When we write about the past, we need to make explicit: first, when we are writing in our voice, as the historian in the present moment; second, when we are writing in the voice of the people of the past as we present the primary source material; and third, when we are including the analysis of other historians who also have interpreted this history. It should be clear to your reader when you are writing in each of these positions. An example of the first: The Report’s section on the history of Germany’s participation in the modern Olympics moves quickly past its acknowledgment of World War I, noting that the 6th Olympiad was set to take place in Berlin in 1916 before the Games were cancelled because of war. An example of the second: In the explanation of the process to determine where and how to build the Olympic stadium, the organizers recalled the Chancellor declaring, “The Stadium must be erected by the Reich; it will be the task of the nation. If Germany is to stand host to the entire world, her preparations must be complete and magnificent” (Hitler, quoted in The XIth Olympic Games, 55). An example of the third: Historian Allen Guttmann notes that when the IOC voted to award the Games to Berlin in 1931, Hitler and the National Socialists were not yet in power; and, in fact, he had been appointed Chancellor only six days after the organizing committee began its work, in January, 1933 (Guttmann, 53).
Note the citations in the section above. The second citation is more straightforward. I paraphrased Guttmann, and in the citation I listed him as the author of the book and provided the page number. The first citation is more complicated. Hitler is the quoted speaker by the organizing committee, the collective “authors” of the report. Had I quoted something from the prose of the report, the citation would appear as (The XIth Olympic Games, 55).
Another thing we need to keep in mind when thinking about our “writing voices” relates to terminology: When writing in your voice, use current academic terminology, even when writing about the past. Today scholars use the terms African American and black people interchangeably, and when referring to all non-white individuals, the term people of color. (But do make sure not to call Africans and people of African descent from places other than the United States “African Americans.”) Terms like “colored people” or “Negroes” are no longer used by academics. Historians and other academics do use these terms when referring to a historical organization or when quoting a source from that time period. For example, describe African American athletes competing in the 1968 Olympics as black or African American, quote the Mexico City Olympic Games Official Report when “Negro” or “Negro-American” athletes are discussed.
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