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    SCREENING AND CONVERSATION with Margaret Prescod, Founder, Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and host of “Sojourner Truth” on Pacifica Radio’s KPFK.
    Nana Gyamfi, Lawyer-Black Lives Matter, Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders.

  • Otis Fine Arts hosts a Visiting Artist lecture series featuring Oliver Payne, a Los Angeles-based artist. Read more about him here.
    Contact: Soo Kim, skim@otis.edu
  • Kimberli Meyer trained as an architect and an artist, and has been the director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in West Hollywood since 2002. She has initiated and curated many programs there, including the exhibitions How Many Billboards?

  • Industry Spotlight

    Oct 15| Special Event

    An advertising creative director for more than 25 years, Otis alumnus Josh Weltman was the Mad Men co-producer responsible for Don Draper's credibility as an advertising genius.

    Join us for a behind-the-scenes look at the hit series, plus hear key insights from Weltman's new book Seducing Strangers: How to Get People to Buy What You're Selling.

  • Please join the Digital Media Department for a lecture by  Alina Chau.
    Chau is an Animator, Illustrator and Storyboard artist who has worked with Lucasfilm Animation, Technicolor Interactive Services, and Electronic Arts.  
    Alina Chau received her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles. She spent over a decade working in the animation industry. Her most notable credit is on LucasFilm’s Emmy Award Winning program, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”
  • Otis Fine Arts hosts a Visiting Artist lecture series featuring Yutaka Makino. He lives and works in Berlin.  Read more about him here.
    Contact: Soo Kim, skim@otis.edu
  • Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. With David Remnick she co-edited the anthology Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. A recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, and in 2010, the inaugural winner of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award, Choi lives in Brooklyn.


Using Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Both primary and secondary sources are useful and can help you learn about the past.

In the strictest definition, primary sources are usually considered to be items like personal letters, diaries, records or other documents created during the period under study. But primary sources can also include photographs, jewelry, works of art, architecture, literature, music, clothing, and other artifacts.

In a broader definition, primary sources can also be considered materials that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).

Primary sources might also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.

Manuscript: handwritten letter Recipes
Creative Commons Image by kevinzim Creative Commons Image by mollycakes

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those which are written ABOUT events in the past. They usually interpret those events through the lens of the time period in which they are written. New discoveries are made and attitudes change over time causing understandings of past events to change. Facts may remain consistent, but interpretations change, sometimes drastically. 

Sources that have been published very recently will reflect the current theories and understanding of the past. If you use a secondary source that was published decades ago, it is important to know what subsequent scholars have written on the topic and what criticism they have made about the earlier work or its approach to the topic.

NOTE: In the strictest sense, secondary sources are sometimes considered to be anything that refers to a primary source, such as a review of an artwork. But for our purposes in the Modern Art History course, we will use the broader definitions above to classify material as primary.

Where to Find Primary and Secondary Sources

Starry Night by Van Gogh
Public domain image
Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night which is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is a primary source since it is the original work of art. When you go to the museum you are looking at the exact work that he made. Any other version of it that you see in visual culture (photograph, slide, digital image, postcard, stationary) is a reproduction. It can be a different size and the color may vary. You may get the general idea of the painting but it would not be the same experience as seeing the real work.

Vincent van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother, Theo, and these letters are also primary sources but you would have to go to an archive to read the ACTUAL letters. At the archive you would wear special protective gloves so the oils from your hands would not harm the fragile paper and the letters would be brought to you in special containers. You would read them in an archival room where the temperature and humidity were controlled. You might be allowed to photocopy them. In that case, you would have to transcribe the contents by hand. The advantage of having this kind of access to a primary source is that you actually handle the original material. You can see exactly what van Gogh’s handwriting looked like and feel the quality of the paper. You would be using the original primary source.

Some archives are digitizing their collections and making them freely available on the web. For instance, the Van Gogh Museum has created the a web site for their Van Gogh Letters with original text, translations, facsimiles and indexes. Most archives, though, cannot publish their primary source materials in such a robust and extensive manner.

Luckily, there are other ways to access the primary source information without going to the archive. Primary source information can be copied and made available in other publications. Letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, historical documents of all kinds have been reproduced and published in books, articles, journals, magazines, anthologies, and encyclopedias. Additionally, these reproductions can be in academic databases as well as educational and commercial websites.

One of the easiest ways to access primary source material without going to an archive is to use an anthology which is a collection of writings or articles. Scholars have amassed anthologies of selected primary source material and written additional commentary to help the reader understand the meaning and context of the primary source material. Generally the anthology will have a specific focus like renaissance writings on art making, 19th century art criticism of a specific individual. For example, there are books with the published letters of Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, along with information about the artist, his life, his work, the conditions under which he worked and the general content of the letters. A scholar has written the supporting material and that material is considered a secondary source. It was written later than the primary source, it comments or explains or critiques the primary source.

In contrast, secondary sources address the primary source, but were created later by someone who did not experience it first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. Scholars writing about historical events, people, objects, or ideas produce secondary sources because they help explain new or different positions and ideas about primary sources. These secondary sources generally scholarly books, including textbooks, articles, encyclopedias, and anthologies.

The Museum of Modern Art's page for Starry Night contains a mixture of primary sources - a reproduction of the the painting and quotes from Van Gogh's letters - and secondary sources - the gallery wall text, excerpt from a MoMA publication, and a podcast about the painting.

Sources can be evaluated by different criteria

In Introduction to Visual Culture, you learned how to evaluate written sources based on content. Now you know the difference between sources that are scholarly, professional, substantive news, and popular. This semester you are going to learn how to evaluate sources based on when they were written and how they are accessed and whether they are primary or secondary and why.

Context is everything…

Here are examples of the same content published in a popular magazine and reprinted in a scholarly anthology. For the purposes of the Modern Art History course, we will consider them primary.

VOGUE images above: copyright Condé Nast

You will be expected to understand and comment upon the context in which the content appeared.

View OtisDID slideshow on primary and secondary sources