The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Thoughts of a Wannabe Historian

I may have missed my calling. Only since I discovered the power of primary sources have I yearned for a new career as a historian. Reading history textbooks aloud in high school classes put me to sleep. I could never understand how my mother could read one biography after another from American history. I did experience briefly the pull of history in university classes. In my undergraduate days, a class in American government viewed through a systems approach fascinated me, as did a Western civilization class that neatly tied up loose ends of intellectual history.

Today I read history. For fun. Granted, most of my reading choices (sometimes in audiobook form for my visits to the gym) would be called “popular history” — books by Jon Meacham, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson, Candice Millard, Erik Larson, and more. Biographies may not count, but I’m not a purist. I’m only a wannabe, so I can get away with squishy definitions of history.

Occasionally I pick up one of those serious, heavily footnoted history books on a more obscure topic. For example, I recently finished listening to a recording of The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, written in 1791. After forty-three hours of listening to the narrator’s upper class British accent, I knew everything I would ever need to know about Mr. Johnson. Line in the Sand: A History of the U.S.-Mexican Border, by Rachel St. John, taught me the complexities of border politics and struggles and gave me new insights into how history informs present-day immigration issues. I finished it in six weeks, just in time to avoid a library fine.


Search for Arms, Mexican Border Bain News Service ca. 1910-1915 Library of Congress

Search for Arms, Mexican Border
Bain News Service
ca. 1910-1915
Library of Congress

Sadly missing from the audio books are the primary sources. I confess that I’ve gone into bookstores expressly to look at the pictures in the “real” books. Guiltily, I often walk out with a new purchase, especially if I’m visiting an independent bookstore.

Who knows what the teaching of primary source analysis and historical thinking skills might lead our students to consider in their own futures? Certainly, not many of our students will become historians, but even if they simply turn into wannabe historians like me, their lives will be made richer if we instill in them a love of  primary sources.


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