I just came across this article, which discusses what is believed to be the first photograph ever taken of a person (1838). Although earlier photographs exist, it was difficult to capture humans because the long exposure time would require a person to stay perfectly still in order to appear in the photo. The only reason a human appears in this photo is because he was getting his shoes shined and stood still long enough to be captured.
This may be obvious to some, but this article was a bit of an “A-HA” moment for me as a historian. I realized how important it is to have an understanding of the technology and the history of the sources you are examining. The author of this article notes that there were likely many people in this Parisian street, but that this man was the only one who appeared. Without understanding the technology of photography, it would be extremely easy to misinterpret this photo and to assume that this was a very quiet street.
Even though I’m a graduate history student, I have had surprisingly little experience with primary sources until this year. During my undergrad, I only had one major paper that required the use of primary sources, and I chose to examine American magazines in the 1950s. I have also used newspapers and journals, but they were integrated into papers that relied mostly on secondary research.
I’m not sure if this was just a weakness of the university I attended, but it seems that there should be an undergrad course (possibly mandatory) on primary research. There is so much to know, as this article indicates. I would have appreciated a course that discussed different types of sources, how and why they are produced, their value for researchers, how to find them, etc. We went over this briefly in our Archives class the other night and I realized how useful a broad understanding of primary sources would be when conducting research and deciding what sources to consult.
Without it, I might end up going around telling people that Paris in the 1830s was just a sleepy little town…..