31 Books About Witches

by Britney Reed-Saltz

For centuries the witch has been a powerful archetype. Feared or revered, emulated or persecuted, her position in society has evolved throughout history, but one thing has remained certain: her presence.

What better time than now, as Halloween approaches, to sit for a spell and read tales of witchcraft? Whether you prefer fantasy, romance, horror, mystery, or nonfiction, this list will point you to the grimoire you seek.

Garden Spells  Sarah Addison Allen (magical realism, series)witches 1

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (magical realism, series)

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (fantasy, series)

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (humorous fantasy, series)

The Good House by Tananarive Due (horror)

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (horror)

witches 2The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston (historical fantasy, series)

Bell, Book, and Murder by Rosemary Edghill (mystery, series)

The Witch of Painted Sorrows by M. J. Rose (historical fiction)

Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft edited by Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood (YA short stories)

The Goblin Wood by Hilari Bell (YA fantasy)

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard (fantasy, series)witches 3

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (historical fiction)

A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan (historical fiction)

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (historical fiction)

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (fiction)

Circe by Madeline Miller (historical fiction)

witches 5The Witching Hour by Anne Rice (historical fiction, series)

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (YA historical fiction, series)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (YA Afrofuturism/fantasy, series)

Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen (YA fantasy, series)

The Graces by Laure Eve (YA paranormal fantasy, series)

Book of Shadows by Cate Tiernan (YA paranormal fantasy, series)witches 6

The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw (YA paranormal fantasy, series)

Dance Upon the Air by Nora Roberts (romance, series)

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell (cozy mystery, series)

The King of Bones and Ashes by J. D. Horn (urban fantasy, series)

witches 9Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison (urban fantasy, series)

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (urban fantasy, series)

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (nonfiction)

Witches of America by Alex Mar (nonfiction)

 

 

 

 

 

Horror Movies You Can Stream for Free with Your Library Card

by Brittney Reed-Saltz

I don’t know how many times when, around Halloween, a patron has come to me at the library asking for a good scary movie, and although I have plenty of suggestions, I discover that they are all either checked out or have been lost. I always send them home with something, but I always wish that I could have given them their first choice.

Luckily, you don’t have to be that patron this year, thanks to Hoopla! If you haven’t tried out this service, now is the perfect time. Your library card lets you instantly check out up to 8 items each month, with no wait lists. So even if you realize on Halloween morning that you need movies for a marathon that night, you can still find plenty to watch.

The only hard part of using Hoopla is figuring out which movies to check out first… There are over 700 to choose from in the horror category, alone! Here my recommendations.

Evil Dead 
Bruce Campbell  wages battle against ancient demons in Sam Raimi’s evil deadcampy cult classic.

 

Suspiria
A stylish Gothic from Dario Argento featuring a splendid soundtrack from Goblin, Suspiria follows a young woman as she enrolls at a ballet academy with a dark past. Watch the original before catching the remake in theaters this month.

Wish Upon
I have a soft spot for teen horror, and this one comes through with a lot of supernatural fun. It reminded me of a mixture of The Possession and Final Destination.

Hellraiser
Another case of a box that grants wishes you’ll really wish you had not made, but this movie is far from teen fare. Based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hell-Bound Heart, it xxfeatures the Cenobites, who are among my favorite horror movie villains.

Burying the Ex
The late Anton Yelchin stars as Max, who struggles to move on when his girlfriend dies in an accident. Unfortunately, she has other ideas, and returns from beyond the grave to pick up where they left off. Silly comedy steeped in horror tropes, perfect for when you’d rather laugh than scream.

XX
This anthology of short films directed by women offers a little something for everyone, including a disturbing adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s short story “The Box.” The creepy stop-motion animated interludes between each film would be worth watching even on their own.

Rubber
An abandoned tire named Robert–yes, really–comes to life and begins rolling through the desert, crushing anything in his path. You know you want to watch this, if only to see how weird it is.the void

The Void
The “harried band of survivors trapped in a building” trope meets Lovecraftian terror when hooded cultists lay siege to a hospital. If you like ominous creatures from beyond our dimension with a hefty dash of gross, Cronenburg-esque body horror, The Void is for you.

Darling
A young house-sitter on duty alone descends into increasingly disturbing visions that culminate in an act of violence. This movie is hip and unsettling, with a sensibility that straddles the line between classic and modern.

Night of the Living Dead
This movie is iconic for a reason: It redefined zombies in film and it’s timelessly creepy. If the bleak ending doesn’t get under your skin, I don’t know what will.

 

 

Roots, Heritage, and the Antiquarian Way

by James Rucker 

Just a few minutes before I began writing,  I reshelved a total of sixty-eight books in a locked room on the second floor at Linebaugh. Genealogy enthusiasts among you might already know the room in question, though it goes by multiple names. Some call it the Tennessee Room. Others call it the Historical Research room (or HR Room for short). Our more functionalist patrons call it the “Genealogy Room.” I’ve even heard some older patrons refer to it as “the Vault,” which was its nickname, according to one of them, at our former location at 110 W College Street. Way back when, Murfreesboro’s post office had a room with a locked, metal gateway where they stored valuables. When Linebaugh Library moved into the building, they repurposed this “Vault” into an archive of various official records and historical publications. We eventually moved to our current location and now the former post office houses the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts.

When our current building was under construction, the head librarian at the time, Briley Adcock, gave a tour to some reporters from the Daily News Journal. The interview ran on May 3rd, 1992.

archive blog 1

Adcock was particularly enthusiastic about the new accommodations to local historians, both professional and casual. As the reporter wrote, “Also on the second floor is Adcock’s favorite room, a new improved version of the Tennessee Room./ ‘It’s about three times larger than what we have now,’ she said. / Stored in the Tennessee Room will be all the library’s geneological [sic] resources, she said, as well a copy machine, microfilm readers and a vault for storing rare volumes. / ‘The people who use this part of the building regularly will be really pleased,’ she said.”

Archival documents say both too much and too little at the same time. It can be overwhelming to think of the volume of material to comb through. Of course, the modern world is riddled with unchecked bureaucracies and their meticulous record-keeping, but we mustn’t mistake the chatter in the archives for a clear voice. In a way, these many words say nothing at all. Documents aren’t self-conscious and can’t interpret themselves. Therefore, the archive cannot speak for itself; the historian must speak for it. If I may repurpose an ironic quip from a 19th-century, German journalist, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”

For those who don’t know where to begin, I will recommend a book: The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge. Don’t judge the book by its call number (it is miscategorized); it may be shelved with books on the French Revolution (944.04), but it is actually about historical research methods and what to expect when you visit an archive. I found her prose not only instructive but also a pleasure to read. As Natalie Zemon Davis wrote in her introduction, “Arlette Farge takes us into archives and pulls us into the experience of research” (xi-xii). It isn’t a dry instructional manual, but a visceral and tactile read that aquaints you with the textures, discomforts, and pleasures one should expect.

However, more than anything, Farge wants us to prepare to be surprised. For example, when looking into the history of my mother’s family, I consulted census data from Dickson county in the 1800s. Strangely enough, during one decade’s census, the number of people in my family’s household spiked. There were unfamiliar people several different surnames between them. Clearly my family had taken in several, seemingly random, people, only for them to disappear a decade later. Perhaps they were refugees? Or maybe my family had hired some people to help out on the family farm? Had I investigated further, I might have found out more, but  for the time being it is a mystery. To quote Davis again, “Arlette Farge is our guide — for the unexpected, the surprise. We rejoice when we make a find, even though the story or event itself may be sad, troubling, ghastly, baffling; even though it may oblige us to rethink our earlier understanding of our topic and restructure it” (xii).

We must be careful, however. Archives are, of course, products of institutions or governments which have objectives and desires. Therefore, archives, like all institutions, have biases. A census, like the one I consulted above, views its subjects as quantifiable entities, to be counted and categorized so officials can draw districts and collect taxes. The state collects this data in order to govern more easily and effectively. This state-bias is perhaps most clear in Farge’s own case, since she works with the records of arrests and interrogations kept by French police. As she puts it, “most of the dossiers ultimately put forward only one version of the events, that of public order and police authority. The questions that were asked have a policeman’s directness. Above all, the police were looking to identify the culprits” (87). The perspective of the judicial archives has an accusing eye, one that sees the population as a problem to be solved; “in a sense, they catch the city red-handed: craftily maneuvering around the rules, refusing outright to accept the policemen’s vision of order, choosing to acclaim or snub its kings, and rising up whenever it feels threatened. When reading the police records, you can see to what extent resistance, defiance, and even open revolt are social facts to which the city is accustomed. […] Deviance and marginality are powerfully indicative of political authority and of norms, and each type of crime reflects an aspect of the society in which it occurred” (25 & 27). Farge stresses how important it is to overcome this bias of an archive and capture the voices of those common people under their regime. “As historians, we must take into account the reflexes, habits, and weaknesses of the police” (88). As I mentioned above, a census doesn’t see people as concrete individuals but as abstract quantities without any qualities it considers irrelevant. To the eyes of the census, people only exist to be counted. And in the antebellum South, the census counted certain “properties” as only three-fifths of a whole person. I am, of course, referring to slaves.

In many cases, these biases are  most visible where the archive falls silent. The census has nothing to say when it comes to the parts of life we care about most. For those moments, most people have birth and death certificates or records of marriage and divorce, but not everyone has those resources. African American genealogy illustrates this problem quite clearly. Precise records of the births, deaths, marriages, and divorces of slaves were rarely kept in much of the antebellum South. Alex Haley’s Roots and the miniseries of the same name might be the most famous genealogical work to date, but it was a remarkable achievement precisely because of the hurdles my people sometimes have to go through when finding out about our heritage. My father once told me about how hard it was to find information when trying to map out his paternal bloodline.

Daniel, my great-great-grandfather, was the last man in that part of my family to be born a slave; therefore, he had no birth certificate. The earliest record of him was when he was mentioned in a court case. When a plantation owner with our last name died, there was a lawsuit to determine who would inherit the estate. In court, they had to list every piece of property, slaves included. Among them, there was a single child of the correct age named Daniel who we assume must be our ancestor. But there is no way to be sure. This court case is as far back as our paternal bloodline goes. My paternal grandmother’s line, by contrast, can be traced all the way back to the auction block, where my ancestor and her mother were sold separately, cutting that tie forever. But it isn’t state documents that let us trace our family that far, but an oral tradition that was passed down every generation to us (similar to the one in Alex Haley’s family).  Examples like those above show how creative a researcher has to be with archival evidence, since it is not always obvious where to find the needed information. They also show the importance of oral tradition for filling in gaps in the documentary record.

For those interested in researching their own families, now is the perfect time. October is Family History Month in the United States, and upstairs at Linebaugh is a book display by our own Lisa Ramsay, showing some of our available materials on genealogical research.

arhive blog graphic

After that you can take a look at the HR room to your left, or walk down the non-fiction stacks to “929” where you can check out a book on genealogy to take home. If Linebaugh doesn’t have what you need, we also have an HR room at our Smyrna branch, and the Rutherford County Archives are at 423 Rice Street, northwest of the Murfreesboro town square. Perhaps you’ll find some answers, or even better, some questions. And next month, at the Thanksgiving table, you might be able to ask them of your grandparents (or whoever your oldest living relatives are). If all else fails, you can ask them to tell you about their own grandparents.

And when you get the chance, check out Allure of the Archives for yourself. I’ll close with another quote from Davis’s introduction: “Newcomers to historical studies will welcome Arlette Farge’s introduction to archival research. Amateur history enthusiasts will be fascinated by her insider’s account of how historians practice their craft. But old-timer’s like me will have their memories enriched and their understanding deepened by this book” (xiii).

The Authors Who Made Me Love Horror

By Brittney Reed-Saltz

So, I love horror. But what made me this way?

Despite what people who don’t like horror novels might assume, it wasn’t a traumatic childhood event, or at least, not exactly. I did begin reading horror at a young age, and each title I picked up drew me farther down the road to becoming the reader I am today.

(As for what set off that initial spark of interest that made me pick up my first scary book, who knows for sure? I’m tempted to blame a mixture of genetics, great trick-or-treating experiences, and exposure to Tim Burton.)

In honor of that journey, here are the authors who had the biggest influence on my discovery of my favorite genre. I also identify what made me love their work, so if you’re struggling to understand a burgeoning young monster kid in your life, maybe this will help.

Alvin Schwartzauthors who 1
Where would I be without Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Not reading horror, that’s for sure. As a child, I didn’t realize that these were urban legends and folklore, and to be honest, I didn’t really care where the stories came from. They were terrifying and timeless, and accompanied by absolutely perfect illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and they scared me out of my wits. This series left an indelible mark on me, and looking at them even now gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I even have a pair of earrings featuring two iconic images from the series.

R. L. Stineauthors who 2
I grew up in the ’90s, a time when R. L. Stine was everywhere. I adored the Goosebumps series and lived for the times when my mom would take me to the bookstore that used to be in the Stones River Mall. I would sit on the floor and make the agonizing decision of which book I would pick to take home. When I aged out of Goosebumps, Fear Street was there waiting for me. Meant for teens, I read them when I was much younger, and I loved the covers as much as the stories. It seems silly and quaint now, but the Fear Street novel Goodnight Kiss is actually the only book I have ever stopped reading because it was too scary for me. I loved R. L. Stine because his books really scared me, featuring monsters and ghosts that felt actually dangerous, and adrenaline-fueled situations. But he also has a sense of humor, using lawn gnomes and ventriloquist dummies as villains. The mixture of laughs and thrills is still greatly appealing to me, as in movies like What We Do in the Shadows and books like My Best Friend’s Exorcism. And of course, I’m excited that he has continued the Fear Street series with You May Now Kill the Bride.

Edgar Allan Poeauthors who 3
I discovered Poe around fifth grade, thanks to “The Raven.” I already knew that I liked poetry thanks to Shel Silverstein, but I had not yet realized that you could write scary poetry, so Poe was a revelation. I also loved his short stories, especially “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” I don’t know if I even realized that I was reading classics; I just loved the dark twists and hypnotic language. A couple of years later I would go on to portray the Red Death in a school production of “The Masque of the Red Death,” which I greatly enjoyed because I got to wear a black cloak and be utterly dramatic.

Anne Riceauthors who 4
Anne Rice is one of the adult authors that I read at a young age. I discovered her through the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, which I rented from the local video store obsessively. Years later, I started reading the Vampire Chronicles books. My teachers were scandalized. I was in love with Rice’s flowery writing, dripping in angst and innuendo, and with her unforgettable characters. Lestat de Lioncourt is still my favorite fictional vampire. I mean, who wouldn’t admire the bravado and panache of a vampire who decides to break vampiric law and reveal his identity in the grandest possible way: Becoming a rock star?

Stephen Kingauthors who 5
My teachers also weren’t exactly thrilled about my budding love of Stephen King, either. I remember needing to obtain a special permission letter from my mom allowing me to order On Writing from the Scholastic book catalog (remember those?). In middle school I also read my way through Misery, Carrie, and other King classics. I even attempted IT, but stopped because at the time I thought that it was too adult and boring. (That’s the great thing about precocious kids: We test boundaries, but we also know how to set them for ourselves.) King is a consummate storyteller, and I loved his tangents and backstories that he wove into a colorful tapestry of story. He appealed to me as a kid because I saw him as the real deal, a writer who knew his stuff. When I realized that I wanted to become a writer, too, he was the writer I aspired to be.

Christopher Pikeauthors who 6
I discovered Christopher Pike in junior high, and I responded really well to his more sophisticated but still accessible level of horror. One of my most vivid reading memories centers around silent reading time in eighth grade, on a late Spring day. The door was open to let in warm breezes, I was wearing my beloved Ramones T-shirt, and I was totally lost in Whisper of Death. Around that same time, I read all of the Last Vampire series, which is now available in omnibus editions under the title Thirst. They’re sort of like a light version of Anne Rice, featuring an ancient immortal and weird Christopher Pike touches. I’m remembering them as being sort of like Queen of the Damned for kids.

Billy Martin (who published under the name Poppy Z. Brite)authors who 7
By the time high school rolled around, I was an established horror fan, and so I’ll end this list with the author who expanded my horizons and catapulted me firmly and irrevocably into the realm of adult fears. I found the books like Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, Wormwood, and Exquisite Corpse by researching books with goth characters when I was about fourteen. I wanted to read about people who were like me… Or at least, like older and more exciting versions of me, who spent their weekends doing things much more dangerous than writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction. Martin’s books are like if an Anne Rice novel and a Cure album had a baby. I adored their glamorous atmosphere, their characters, and the fact that they were set in the South.

 

3 Dark Fantasy Short Story Collections by Women

By Brittney Reed-Saltz

For a long time I thought that I disliked short stories. Maybe this was the result of only encountering the form in school, where stories were assigned as examples of form or technique, read quickly and squeezed of all their juice and left, at the end of a class discussion, wrung out dry. I spent so much time reading short stories in school that I didn’t seek them out for leisure reading, preferring novels.

But as an adult, I rediscovered the short form and how downright enjoyable stories can be. True, they’re not the full-blown escape of a novel, but they are portals, little interludes into other worlds, and they can do things that novels can’t. Their brevity affords them the freedom to be more poetic and occasionally less logical. They can experiment and confound and beguile. They’re great fun.

Here are three collections of short stories that I love, all of which were written by women. All of them are, more or less, dark fantasy, though each author’s interpretation of the genre reflects different influences, and provides something for very different readers.

her body and other parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Recently I wrote about book hangovers, and this is the specific book that inspired that post. Machado’s work blends magical realism, horror, and absurdism to comment on the everyday horrors of existing as a woman: sexual assault, body image issues, sexism. To say that Machado is unafraid to tread into weird territory or to leave readers with lingering questions is an understatement. On occasion I would finish a story and wonder what I had just read, but if you’re okay with open-ended resolutions that will make you keep thinking about the stories after you finish them, you’ll be at home with this collection.
Favorite stories: 
– “Inventory,” which charts an apocalyptic pandemic through a list of the narrator’s lovers.
– “The Husband Stitch,” a feminist retelling of “The Green Ribbon” that name-drops a litany of beloved urban legends.

the poison eaters

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black
Holly Black is one of my most beloved authors. She always delivers a mixture of beauty and darkness that I find irresistible, and she’s among the best writers working within the framework of faerie folklore today. Some of the stories in this collection are more memorable than others, but all of them are enjoyable, and this would be a good introduction to Black’s writing if you’ve never read her before.
Favorite stories:
– “The Night Market,” an atmospheric faerie story that recalls shades of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”
– “The Coat of Stars,” which features a tender and affecting love alongside lush descriptions of fabrics that made me want to dust off my neglected sewing machine.
– “Going Ironside,” which fits into Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series, one of my favorite urban fantasy trilogies.

the bloody chamber

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
If you want fairy tales in the Brothers Grimm sense, this book is a must-read. Carter captures the darkness of the original stories that Walt Disney edited out in favor of singing birds and helpful mice, and she adds her own shades of darkness. Female characters in fairy tales often exist in more shadow than might initially be made apparent by the unadorned, matter-of-fact language in which they’re usually written, and Carter delves into those shadows with eagerness and intelligence. Her writing is lyrical, bawdy, and sharp, perfectly tuned to her subject matter, timeless while maintaining an underlying modernity of attitude.
Favorite stories:
– “The Erlking,” a folkloric story about a woman drawn to a wildman in a forest despite the dangers he poses.
– “The Lady of the House of Love,” the profoundly Gothic tale of a vampire Countess living in a moldering Romanian castle on the eve of World War I.

Is It Clutter or a Hoard?

by Marlene Kupsch

Yes, I am referring to the people who collect things–a lot of things–and yet they believe they still do not have enough. Most of us have a Hoarder/Collector in our own families. Their collection may not be as big as the ones you see on the TV show Hoarders that airs on A&E, but they are there. We are told that the reason people hoard is a compulsive need to acquire things that comes from a traumatic experience. Roughly 16 million people in the U. S. are affected by it.

Well, what do we do when we see the signs, whether in ourselves or someone else? I can tell you first-hand that it is frustrating to want to help someone, and they refuse to acknowledge it is even a problem. This is not an easy subject for me or my family. I believe most of us would rather speak about death, and even that is taboo! So, my hope is to give you a few options on reading material so that you can try to understand a bit more.

There are two little fantastic hardcover books, less than 150 pages each, that will help you in the hinting department to your loved one. The Art of D*scard*ng, written with lots of joy by Nagisa Tatsumi, would make a great stocking stuffer! This books gives you the permission your loved one needs to throw it away!

I love to throw things away and I get such euphoria every time I accumulate a bag or two to drive over to the dump. When I get back and see that space empty and clean, I feel like I cleansed my soul. Truthfully!

The other one is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. I like the way Margareta draws little pictures in the book. I think it is her way of trying to lighten the mood and not make you feel like you are being targeted and should be punished for what you have accumulated. She gives you tips on sorting and cleaning, and helps you focus on what is really important. Cleaning used to be a compulsive need for me. Everything had to be in its place, and every dust bunny must be chased into the field, especially if company was planned. Oh dear, then I spent all night the night before making sure everything was spotless. I was unable to sleep till it was. I certainly do not recommend this extreme, either! I lost a lot of time cleaning instead of spending every moment I could with my daughter when she was growing up.

So if you have A&E or Hulu and feel like bingeing some episodes (it becomes addictive) of Hoarders, watching the transformation of the people and the houses they clean, is utterly amazing. Max Paxton, who is one of the cleaning specialists on the show, has written a book called The Secret Lives of Hoarders : True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter. We also have a few more books here in our library catalog that are worth a gander: Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind, and Soul by Ruth Soukup and Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. 

Happy cleaning!

On Unicycles, Bicycles, and Tricycles

by James Rucker

When you want the answer to a question, where do you start? I, for one, am unashamed to admit that I check Wikipedia first when I’m unfamiliar with the topic. However, when I am familiar, I check more specialized sources. Perhaps I’ll know of a historian who has written about it, or maybe of a relevant news article or or memoir. Either way, we can recognize these as different kinds of information sources. But how are they different, exactly? And how does this inform our reading of them? To answer these questions, today we’ll discuss the central distinction employed by historians, between primary, secondary, and tertiary source documents.

A good rule of thumb for classifying a document as a primary, secondary, or tertiary source is to consider how many steps removed from the topic the source is. Let’s pretend that on June 22, 1902, Teddy Roosevelt rode a unicycle along the streets of New Orleans. Many people saw him do it. If someone were to interview any of these witnesses, that interview would be a primary source (since it is a single step removed from the alleged unicycling). If a historian were to read several such interviews and write an article describing how they think it took place, this would be a secondary source document (since it is two steps removed). If yet another historian reads many such secondary source articles and books, which themselves were written in response to primary sources, and then synthesizes that knowledge into a textbook or encyclopedia entry then we would refer to that as a tertiary source document for the event (since it is three steps removed).

At this point, I want to direct your attention to three titles we have at Linebaugh which capture this distinction: Reporting the Revolutionary War, edited by Todd Andrlik, a selection of primary source newspaper snippets from the revolution; 1776, written by David McCullough, a secondary-source monograph on the Revolutionary War itself; and Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, edited by Harold E. Selesky, a tertiary source.

Right on the cover of Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, we have a tagline that seems to say it all: “Before it was History, it was NEWS.” Most people would categorize a newspaper article as a primary source (even though many reporters are not eyewitnesses to events they describe), and the tagline makes the important point that history is usually written retrospectively. Historians know how the events in question turned out, which gives them an advantage when deciding what events are significant. Journalists can be blind at times to whether current affairs will be of any consequence. For example, on August 13th, 1776, the London Chronicle announced the Declaration of Independence, merely saying, “Advice is received that the Congress resolved upon independence the 4th of July; and, it is said, have declared war against Great Britain in form” (Andrlik 197). It is buried in a page of unrelated stories, less than an inch or two from announcements of local marriages and bankruptcies.

On the other hand, a memoir (say of Teddy Roosevelt recalling his unicyclical antics years later) does have the benefit of hindsight, but it still isn’t a secondary source because it is limited to his personal perspective on the event. Taking these two examples together will highlight an important trait of primary sources: They are limited in scope, either by perspective or by time.

Primary sources like these do provide an important advantage to the curious and critical reader: They present a perspective in a more or less pure form. With secondary or tertiary works, you not only have the perspectives of the witnesses, but those of the historian as well, and, of course, with a perspective comes its biases and assumptions. It is important to say that bias does not make a source useless. In fact, once harnessed, an identified bias makes a source incredibly useful. Historians don’t merely want to know what people did, they want to know why. Uncovering a person’s bias can help immensely when pinning down their motivations.

If primary sources provide pure perspectives, why read secondary or tertiary sources at all? Well, because sometimes an eyewitness is mistaken about what happened, and perhaps another witness can provide a more accurate account, or at least cast some much needed doubt on our first interviewee. Cross-referencing different perspectives on the same event is important work not only because it helps to identify who is mistaken about events in question, but also because it can show how the perspectives exist in conflict or consensus. In an ideal universe, someone could consult only primary sources, but there simply is not enough time to read them, let alone learn all the languages necessary. Historians must rely on each other to provide context for the events they study in depth. How do we understand the significance of Roosevelt’s speculative unicycle ride? Was his presidency popular at the time and so his unicycling was done with a light heart? Or did he just declare war and such frivolity was in poor taste?

This is where secondary sources like McCullough’s 1776 come into play. Rather than merely quote primary sources, the historian attempts to synthesize them into a single account. Central to the work of historians is the distinction between testimony and evidence. Testimony is the set of claims a primary source makes, while evidence is any information that can be inferred from the document, even if it is information the source’s testimony disagrees with. As in everyday life, where we can choose not to believe someone because their testimony is too inconsistent, incoherent, or fragmentary, historians can do the same to their sources. Any source can be dishonest or misinformed, so no particular source’s testimony is given absolute authority. Therefore the bulk of the work is in source criticism, where you read “against the grain” and “between the lines” of the text to glean information which it doesn’t wish to divulge. Rules and regulations are an excellent place to see divergence between testimony and evidence. For example, if New Orleans in 1905 passed a law banning unicycle use in the streets, we would not want to believe that unicycles were therefore never used there. Quite the contrary, we would instead have to infer that people rode their unicycles in the street so often that it became a problem, otherwise, such a law would not exist. So while the testimony of the rule is that unicycling through the streets is illegal, punishable, and therefore something the authorities are putting a stop to, the rule is itself a piece of evidence of the opposite. Even though secondary source documents do not typically represent direct experience of what they describe, they do tend to represent the professional authority that comes from having been trained to read texts critically in this way.

As I said at the beginning, I’m unashamed to consult a tertiary source like Wikipedia when approaching a topic which is foreign to me, but I wouldn’t dream of citing one in a paper of my own. Note that this isn’t exclusive to Wikipedia. The problem with Wikipedia isn’t so much that it is edited by the general public; the problem is that it is a tertiary source. No tertiary source is acceptable to cite as an authority in a formal setting. A tertiary source, like an encyclopedia, may frequently be compiled by a professional historian; however, they will tend to have less familiarity with a given topic in the book than another historian would who has focused more exclusively on it. A tertiary source, therefore, is a more general information source. It does not tend to represent cutting edge research, nor can it be expected to provide detailed information.

Now that I have established the difference between these three sorts of sources, I need to qualify it. Whether a document is primary, secondary, or tertiary is not intrinsic to the document itself, but is entirely relative to what questions the historian chooses to ask it. For example, Titus Livius (also known simply as Livy) wrote a massive history of Rome called From the Founding of the City. It is a secondary source (and probably not a very accurate one at that) for studying the early Roman Republic. However, it is just as much a primary source as Virgil’s Aeneid when studying the literary culture in the court of Emperor Augustus. In fact, every secondary source document for a time in the past is a primary source document for the time in which it was written. A book like Livy’s demonstrates that the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary is not between exclusive categories, but regions along a spectrum. Some sources are more primary than others, some less. Roosevelt’s memoirs of his fictional frivolities would be more primary than an article in the New Orleans Bee which happens to recount the tale, too. On the other hand, Wikipedia and the World Book are more tertiary than our Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Before I conclude, I’d like to take a moment to step back and talk about the purpose of my blog entries more generally. I want to write about how to get the most out of both history books and news articles (primary sources of the present). Hopefully interested readers will find my posts helpful when cultivating their critical reading skills. Of course, the blog is mainly intended to point people to various resources that the library provides, so I intend to inform the readers about various materials and services that RCLS has available. However, I also want my entries to feel like a resource in themselves. I am drafting one more entry right now about the Historical Research Rooms at Linebaugh and Smyrna. After that, each month I will discuss a different types of history writing, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of their methods. Different kinds of historians utilize different sources or utilize the same sources in different ways. They ask different kinds of questions and expect different kinds of answers. After all, historians, just like the people they write about, have motivations. Knowing why they write and what they think is important will hopefully help my readers better understand an author’s argument and be able to evaluate it more thoroughly.