An Open Letter to the Bartons
From our friend and occasional guest-blogger Jared Burkholder, associate professor of history at Grace College (IN)…
Dear David (and now Tim) Barton,
Maybe you can clarify something for me. Why do you continue to insist that because you read primary sources you have a unique voice when compared to professional Christian historians like me, who you say fail to make use of original sources?
I am hardly the first to be annoyed by this, but suffice it to say this is utterly incomprehensible to me. Primary sources are to historians what hammers are to carpenters; what keyboards are to composers; what language is to writers. They are the tools of our trade, the most basic implements we learn to use.
Image of what David Barton seems to think is exceeding rare for everyone except himself – an actual original source. This one happens to be a random sample from what must be about a thousand images I’ve taken while researching 18th c. Moravians. (OK, it’s not exactly random… I chose this because it’s a copy of correspondence between Pennsylvania Moravians and George Washington.) Believe it or not, these specimens exist by the thousands online as well. Amazing! (Thanks to the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA, where Paul Peucker will be able to confirm that historians like me do, in fact, use original documents… and take an insane number of digital photos.)
We wrestle with their complexity. We wade through mountains of them. We have realized that using them with integrity requires difficult work and a whole lot of time. Often, we don’t just read and use primary sources, we live in them. We spend so much time with them they become part of our present reality. They show up in our dreams at night and in the space of our daydreams. We ask other people for grant money so we can go and see them. We cross oceans to handle them — maybe just to decipher the notes in the margins. We struggle with foreign languages so we can break their codes and take courses in paleography to learn how the ancients made their letters. Visit any of our classes and you’ll find we not only use original documents for our research, we assign them to our students. We might print out digital photos of documents crammed into our hard drives from our research trips so students can practice with them. We take joy when we inspire in our students the same sense of awe we ourselves feel every time we step into the archives.
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