The Ability to Recognize a Good Source

David L. Ransel, October 2010

One of the arts of history is the ability to recognize a good source. We know about the extraordinary influence of books such as Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg.1 These talented historians were able to tell a compelling story and explain its meaning for us. But the initial success was their ability to recognize what could be learned from the trial transcripts they came upon during their work on the Inquisition. Indeed, Le Roy Ladurie’s principal source had been published a decade before his study. He was the first to realize its possibilities. Ginzburg had been struck by a reference in a document in the Udine archives to a defendant who held that the world had its origin in putrefaction. Because he was busily searching for material on a different topic, Ginzburg merely noted the number of the trial about the world’s beginnings for future reference. Luckily for us, the defendant’s curious belief stirred Ginzburg’s memory from time to time, prompting him years later to return to the trial document to see if he could understand what the man we now know as Menocchio had meant by his statement about the world’s origin.

My favorite example of a master of the art of recognizing a good source is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She was not the first person to encounter the diary of Martha Ballard, on which she based her book A Midwife’s Tale. Several historians had looked through the diary at the Maine Historical Society and set it aside because, as Ulrich recounted, they found that it contained much the same thing day after day. Most likely, they also rejected it because the daily life of a midwife did not qualify as history with a capital H. Laurel Ulrich, by contrast, was interested in learning about how women served their communities, and a knowledge of textiles suggested to her that the patterns of family obligation and professional work evident in the diary wove a revealing fabric of the social and economic contributions of women.

The difficulty in recognizing a good source often stems from a narrow concentration on the materials needed to solve a problem in our current research. If we run into a potentially rich set of documents or images that do not shed light on that problem, we are apt to pass them by in our urge to get on with the task at hand. Very real material constraints also enter in. Dissertations need to be completed and grant requests justified. I recall finding a fascinatingly detailed report on relations between Russia and Persia in the 18th century during my student research year in the Russian archives. It might well, I thought, open a new window on early modern Russian history. But it lay rather far from my dissertation project on internal political reform, and I reluctantly set it aside.2

The Australian anthropologist-historian Greg Dening observed that the perceived value of a source increases in proportion to the difficulty of gaining access to it. He demonstrated this effect in a delightful story of his search for the letters of William Gooch, a young Englishman who had traveled in 1792 to the South Pacific as an astronomer on a supply ship and met a violent end at the hands of Hawaiian natives. Dening traveled to England and had to overcome a number of obstacles before obtaining permission to read the letters—and, accordingly, attached great importance to their contents.3 The story has a powerful resonance for those of us who work in far-off lands where library and archive access is even more difficult than in the United Kingdom. We are indeed apt to attach excessive importance to materials for which permission to read or copy requires lengthy battles with bureaucrats and archivists. By the same logic, we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps. I once acquired—in a casual trade with an illegal book trader in the Soviet Union—an 18th-century Russian letter-writer’s guide. It struck me as a quaint souvenir and possible reference for official titles and forms of address. It was only when I showed it to a senior colleague and heard him exclaim that the book contained a capsule social history that I realized how useful it could be in reinforcing the arguments of my first monograph on the importance of patronage and personal clienteles in Russian politics. This book of model letters constituted a primer in how to initiate, reestablish, nourish, or end a patron or client relationship. I soon produced a couple of articles based on the letter-writer.

Another wonderful source that was easily acquired and therefore not initially appreciated came to me via a Swedish scholar. I had served as external “opponent” when he defended his dissertation on Russian legal history at Stockholm University. Because he had to turn his attention to Swedish history in order to compete for a professorship, he gave me a mimeographed excerpt from the diary of a Russian provincial merchant of the late 18th century. “Maybe you can find some use for it,” he said. At the time I was involved in research on child abandonment in Russia. When I dipped into the diary excerpt and found nothing on that subject, I placed the source on the shelf and continued with my other tasks. Not until I read Laurel Ulrich’s book on the midwife did I realize the possibilities of this plebeian diary. The midwife Martha Ballard lived at the same time as the Russian merchant and faithfully recorded her diary entries over the course of many years just as the merchant had. If Ulrich could bring her subject to life on the basis of such material, perhaps I could achieve something similar. Soon after I read Ulrich’s book, a colleague asked me for an essay on identity. That was the start of my work on what eventually became A Russian Merchant’s Tale, a book done in imitation and appreciation of Laurel Ulrich’s study.4 Her pioneering work allowed me to recognize a good source.

If the source you need to answer a question does not exist, you may be able to create it. About 40 years ago a team of Swedish specialists was doing highly refined statistical calculations of the demographic transition in their country in an effort to discover the reasons for the change to smaller families. Someone not involved in the project pointed out that women who started families in that era were still alive. Why didn’t the researchers ask them directly why they decided to have fewer children? Good idea. The researchers soon turned their statistical analysis into an oral history project.

This story was on my mind when in the 1980s I launched a study of the cultural factors that may have influenced the very different rates of infant and childhood mortality among ethno-religious groups in Russia. Because observed differences had been most marked in villages and the majority of women had resided in the countryside until the 1960s, I wanted to focus on village life. But the Soviet Union was not Sweden. Travel restrictions and surveillance of foreigners made field work nearly impossible, and I was resigned to using ethnographic and statistical materials in urban repositories. Then, unexpectedly, as I was finishing my library spadework and heading to Russia on a sabbatical leave, the Soviet system began to disintegrate. Possibilities for research opened as never before. When I asked my Russian and Tatar friends about oral interviewing of villagers, they expressed enthusiasm and willingness to help. Although it was still not legal for an American to be visiting villages without permission and a Party handler, I ignored these constraints and began field work in the spring and summer of 1990. What I had projected as a study based on written documents suddenly found its appropriate source in the recorded voices of the women who, better than others, could explain the motivations for the changes in their ideas and practices of childbirth and childcare. The result was Village Mothers: Three Generations of Change in Russia and Tataria.5

One final example. My colleague, Dror Wahrman, was walking through the Indianapolis Museum of Art a couple of years ago and noticed a trompe l’oeil of a letter rack by a minor Dutch/English artist who worked around 1700. Something about the figures in the painting drew Wahrman back for a second look and then propelled him on a search that uncovered 60 similar paintings and revealed the artist to be a sophisticated and incisive critic of modernity, a postmodernist 300 years ahead of his time, who by means of a mysterious code and shadowy games embedded in his paintings called attention to the cost of the new economy of mass printing: deterioration of information as it spreads, errors introduced in cheap printing, and erosion of authenticity. Realizing the implications of the paintings, Wahrman put his current project on hold and threw himself into a study of this remarkable artist. The result is a fascinating new book.6

Good sources are often right in front of us. The danger is that our narrow focus on a current project may cause us to miss something altogether new and revealing. The scientists we remember are the ones who saw something anomalous and realized that it was not a mistaken observation but a path to a new paradigm. Historians do not exactly deal in paradigm shifts, but they can stay open to discoveries that lead to fresh insights. The key is to keep abreast of the historical and theoretical debates in one’s own and related fields. A broad acquaintance with questions animating the research in the social sciences, literature, and topic areas of history outside our specialty can alert us to the relevance of a source that otherwise might seem unrewarding or insignificant.

David Ransel is the Robert F. Byrnes Professor of History at Indiana University. He is the author of a number of books on Russian social and cultural history.


1. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, transl. Barbara Bray (New York: Random House, 1979); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, transl. John and Anne Tedeschi (New York: Penguin Books, 1982).

2. Constraints of another kind were also powerful in those days. Soviet archivists and librarians would not allow researchers to stray very far from a pre-approved “scientific plan.” If I had moved my focus to this new topic, my requests for documents on it may have been refused or stonewalled.

3. Greg Dening, History’s Anthropology: The Death of William Gooch (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988).

4. Full title: A Russian Merchant’s Tale: The Life and Adventures of Ivan Alekseevich Tolchënov, Based on His Diary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

5. Published by Indiana University Press, 2000.

6. Wahrman’s book on this subject will appear from Oxford University Press next year. The working title is The Collier Code: A Tale of Art and Obsession at the Threshold of the Modern World.