Historical Secondary Sources: Disadvantages

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An outline of the disadvantages of using historical secondary sources. Learn how to study history the proper way.

Secondary sources are interpretations and analysis’ of first hand accounts of a given subject or event. There are many advantages to using them and when researching subjects such as history, they are a necessity. They allow the reader to get expert views of events and often bring together multiple primary sources relevant to the subject matter. However there are disadvantages to using secondary sources and they should, where possible, be used in conjunction with the primary sources available.

Reassessing Primary Sources

A major disadvantage when using secondary sources alone is that they do not represent first hand knowledge of a subject or event. A primary source gives an eye whiteness or contemporary account, which can often be more accurate than later sources. It is often the case that the first time later generations comment on a subject, they misinterpret the information and it sticks.

An example of this came to light recently when the primary evidence for the medieval chastity belt was revised. Nineteenth century historians had read poems and prose on the subject that was meant to be figurative but they took it literally. The only examples of metal, padlocked chastity belts were later reconstructions so by reassessing the first hand sources and understanding the disadvantages secondary sources can have, modern historians were able to expel the myth.

To Much Information

Another disadvantage when studying history is the sheer volume of work available. There are countless books, journals, magazine articles and web pages that attempt to interpret the past and finding good secondary sources can be problematic.

Many people learn history from popular films like Brave-Heart of Gladiator, but these films are notoriously inaccurate and should be seen as entertainment only. Websites such as Wikipedia and a host of others are also popular ways to read up on the past but as the writers are unknown and anyone can write them, they are often inaccurate and badly researched.

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When looking for good secondary sources, it is highly advisable to find information written by professional historians who understand the complexities of interpreting primary sources and are trained to analyze them accordingly. However, academic secondary sources, while being preferable, often come with their own disadvantages. They can be hard to read, use technical terms that laymen might not understand or be too in-depth for the reader’s needs and therefore boring or long winded. For research purposes, this is not so much an issue but for leisurely reading, it is often best to go to trusted websites such as the BBC history page for informative, interesting historical articles.

Although when studying history there are disadvantages with secondary sources, they are also very useful when selected correctly. For casual readers they can provide expert opinions on a subject matter interesting to the reader, and for research purposes they give interpretation to events and can put the information from primary sources into context.

The Dangers of Revisionist History

When studying history, you must be aware of reading someone’s opinions instead of actual historical facts. Revisionist history is nothing more than a person’s opinion or their idea of what history was instead of the actual historical facts.

Revisionist history can be dangerous as it does not portray actual history as it was just that person’s personal views of history. This type of history can distort what the actual history really was and how it actually occurred.

Too many so-called talking heads today and internet websites make assumptions of history of how they see it today, through today’s eyes. It is very hard to see history today, unless a person actually lived through that time and that time period. Thinking was very different back in the past as compared to the way we think today.

For example today, we view war and aggression differently, or we might view the using of the atom bomb to end World War II differently, than what actually happened. History and in the past, there was a different thinking and we must all be aware of the time period in history.

Sticking to the facts and when studying history, make sure you understand the difference between someone’s opinions and revisionist views as compared to the actual facts.


Posted on Nov 24, 2011
James Tiger
Posted on Mar 20, 2011
Abdel-moniem El-Shorbagy
Posted on Jan 8, 2011