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History for 50p

Updated Sunday, 14th October 2007

A charity shop can offer a wealth of primary source material for a modern historian.

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Like most historians, I have a passion for primary sources. For the uninitiated, I should explain that a primary source is any article that was produced contemporary to the age under study: they are, in other words, the evidential building blocks on which the whole discipline is founded.

On the basis of this definition, pretty much anything can be considered a primary source. This is a fact quite irksome to my wife, who on finding me, say, idling away an hour or two listening to music or watching re-runs of hoary old comedy programmes, has been known to despair of my meagre work ethic - a complaint that can usually be countered by the suggestion that I’m merely contemplating yet another of these vital sources.

Charity shop in Horsham, Sussex

Two recent developments, however, have raised mere enthusiasm to maniacal levels. The first was the OU’s launch of a new history survey course called Exploring History: Medieval to Modern. Previously, I’d largely confined my primary text obsession to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but having to teach the course obliged me to scarf up a whole new range of sources and, in the process, to think hard about problems such as the difficulty of extracting evidence from largely pre-literate societies.

Brilliantly coloured medieval miniatures were, however, only one cause of my increasing primary source fixation. Perhaps more important was the arrival of a new Oxfam shop – one that sells only books – about five minutes walk from where I live. This has imperilled not only my mental equilibrium, but also my bank balance.

For what might seem to be little more than a mass of bric-a-brac to most, is for me a rich and ready supply of historical source material: a sort of convenience store for the modern historian. It helps, of course, that I’m currently researching a book on post-war social history, so that all manner of outdated debris immediately becomes valuable evidence. One recent Oxfam haul of yellowing diet, cookery, travel, sociology, and business books has yielded up a great store of unwitting evidence about past perspectives on social norms.

Take, for instance, the section on ‘exotic vegetables’ from a 1960s cookbook that trumpets the virtues of the hard-to-find aubergine and the teasingly mysterious capsicum pepper.

This is precisely the kind of thing that is precious to the historian, since it hints subtly at shifts in expression and taste that have occurred over the past few decades. The only trouble is that my desire for immersion in the past threatens to flood my small flat with an irresistible tide of slightly musty paperbacks. Still, I hope to discover the solution to that in the section on shelving in my 1975 do-it-yourself book.

Further reading from OpenLearn:

Film and photographs as primary and secondary sources

What do films tell us about a changing society?





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