Using published primary sources

As handy as it is when you can access the same primary source material in different forms, it also forces you to make choices about the form you’re going to use.  For example, when I undertook this King’s Mountain project I knew that sooner or later I’d need to dig into the Cornwallis material at the UK’s National Archives in Kew.  I’m in no position for a trans-Atlantic commute, so consulting the original documents is pretty much out of the question.  Thankfully, this material is available on microfilm, so I assumed I’d be scrolling through them while seated in front of a machine.  (Some of Cornwallis’s papers appeared in a three-volume biographical work published in the nineteenth century, but these volumes don’t have everything I need.)

But just recently I found out about a comprehensive six-volume collection of Cornwallis’s papers relating to the Southern Campaign, edited by Ian Saberton and published by Naval & Military Press in 2010.  A nearby library has all six volumes, so it would be a lot easier for me to use the books than it would be to track down a repository with the microfilm and print what I need.  This would also allow me to maximize my research time and budget on the collections I can only access in manuscript or microform.

At this point, I’ve just about talked myself into using these books instead of the microfilm so that I can spare myself some hassle and devote more time and attention to other collections that are only available in manuscript or microform.  An annotated documentary edition also gives you the benefit of reading the editors’ insights into the documents, which can be extremely helpful.  I’ve found just a couple of reviews of the Cornwallis volumes.  One review was pretty positive; the other criticized the editorial apparatus but said little about the transcriptions themselves.  Since the transcriptions are what I really need, I’m not too worried about whether the annotations or introductions are extensive.

Still, it’s a trade-off.  As with any published documentary edition, the question basically comes down to whether the convenience of a printed and easily available published version of a manuscript source is worth being another step removed from the original documents.  Microfilm isn’t the original, of course, but at least you’re looking at images of the documents themselves.  And I’ll be relying on the Cornwallis papers pretty heavily, since I’m trying to incorporate more of the British perspective than other King’s Mountain studies have included.

These are the type of questions I’ve been mulling over lately.  Now I want to hear from you guys.  What do you folks think about using published editions of primary source material when the same material is available in microform?  As readers, does it have any effect on how you evaluate a scholarly work?  And for those of you who write history, do you prefer to use a printed documentary edition when one is available, instead of manuscripts or microform?

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2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution

2 responses to “Using published primary sources

  1. This is a great question, and I hope others will reply as well. I think using the printed versions of the material are appropriate, although you should probably go back to the microfilm to verify documents that are particularly critical to your narrative. The easier accessibility of the published work can arguably strengthen your scholarship, because you can almost certainly cover more ground, and bring in more original material that you would be able to if you restricted yourself to fumbling around with microfilm reels.

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