How do I talk about the provenance and relevance of a primary source?

First of all, what do we mean by provenance of a source? Essentially we’re talking about the context of the source - information like where and who it came from, for example, and how that relates to what the source is saying. Secondly, when will you need to discuss provenance? Usually it’s in relation to primary sources, and it will be important to talk about the provenance if you are being asked about the reliability or credibility of a source. If you have multiple primary sources then you may be being asked to judge which source carries the most weight or is the most reliable. Discussing provenance is key in being able to properly evaluate sources, as it allows you to weigh up and make a judgement about the importance or reliability of the source in relation to answering your question.

Here are the main points that you should always consider and discuss: 

1) What: What is the source? Is it a private letter? A newspaper article? A satirical cartoon? A diary entry? Part of a speech?. Think about how this affects what the source does and how it would have been received. When we consider 4, we can dig deeper into this point - for example, if the source is a newspaper article, was it for a newspaper that leaned politically to the left or right, or that was opposed or in favour of a certain cause?

2) Who: Who wrote the source? What is their relation to the events that they are discussing? If they are writing about the women’s suffrage movement for example, are they someone who was involved in the fight, and would have had a first-hand knowledge of it? Are they a politician, who may have had a good understanding of the movement, but have been opposed to the cause? Or does the source reflect the opinion of an ordinary person on the topic? Think about how the person’s background, position, beliefs and interests may have led them to make a certain judgement or form a certain opinion on a topic. Then question whether this makes what they say more or less reliable, or adds any weight to it. 

3) When: Was it written at the time of the event in question or was it written some years later? How might this affect its reliability? For example, a source relating to the WW1, written by someone who at the time was experiencing WW1 might bring a sense of immediacy to the source: you are finding out how it felt to live through that experience. On the other hand, some sources may benefit from having been written later, having the hindsight to evaluate the longer term success or consequences of a certain action or situation. 

4) Purpose and Intention: Whilst all the points on this checklist relate to each other, this point relates very strongly to parts 1 and 2. What was the author’s purpose in writing? If, for example, they were writing an article for a newspaper, then their intention was for their words to be read by a large audience of people. They may have been trying to persuade these people of something, and this might suggest something about the reliability of the source. On the other hand, if the author was writing a letter to a friend, and never expected that it would one day be read by a much larger audience, then this might suggest that there would be a greater candidness. Perhaps they may admit to things that they would not if they were talking to a much larger public audience, and we might get a truer sense of their character and feelings. 

With each of these points, the questions you need to ask yourself are: what does this mean for the reliability or significance of the source? What is this source useful to tell us about, and what is it not useful for? Some people like to include one paragraph about provenance in their essays, but my best advice would be to try to avoid tacking this on to the end. Ideally you want to weave your discussion of provenance throughout your essay as each point becomes relevant and make sure you’re always linking it back to the question. Finally, remember that for some questions you may be expected to also use information from your own learning - don’t forget about this because it could come in handy! Maybe you have learnt some factual information that confirms something that the source says, or perhaps even contradicts it!

Answered by Georgina C. History tutor

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