Sources of history refer to the various means through which the historian gathers historical information. The historian can use as many sources as possible as there are no best or most reliable sources of history.
Sources of history can be classified into broad types, which are Primary and Secondary sources. These two broad types can further be sub-divided into:
- Oral sources.
- Written sources.
- Archaeological sources.
- Linguistics and Ethnographic analysis.
- Geography and Environmental analysis.
- Primary sources: Primary sources of history refer to the most basic and raw sources of information about a historical event. They are basic and raw because they are recorded as they happened and not tampered with. They are sometimes called original sources or evidence. Primary sources are very important in history. The ability to effectively use primary sources is very important in determining the quality of the historical work and the skills or knowledge of the historian. Because of its nature, primary sources are not easy to handle; however, information from primary sources is very reliable, factual and dependable in writing history, especially in producing secondary sources. Examples of primary sources include oral tradition and archival materials.
- Oral Tradition: This is historical information that is passed by words of mouth from one generation to another. Oral traditions are stored in human memory. They could be information about events witnessed or experienced by an individual or group, or they may be very old events that occurred over 100 years ago. Oral history is very helpful in constructing the earliest history of Nigeria. These are historical events that happened at a time when our predecessors were non-literate. They were unable to read or write. We, however, got historical information by interviewing them. Oral tradition sources can also be obtained from myths and legends, songs, traditions of origin and proverbs. Sometimes, oral tradition source may be very unreliable and misleading because human memory where the information is preserved is subject to forgetfulness and distortions. Moreover, there is also the possibility of the informant to distort or manipulate the information, either by telling lies, exaggerating or being bias in the presentation of historical information. Oral tradition is passed from one generation to another, but when this is not passed as a result of death on the part of the person to transfer it, that source and story may be lost. However, oral tradition remains a very important primary source of writing history.
- Archival: The Archive is a place where historical records and documents are kept. It is a library for old documents. There are three major national Archives in Nigeria where historians can get primary sources. These are; National Archive Kaduna (NAK), National Archive Ibadan (NAI) and National Archive Enugu (NAE). Some of the materials found in the Nigerian archives that can provide the historian with basic information include government publications, memoirs, and records of early European visitors, explorers and administrators.
- Secondary sources: Secondary sources are mostly written and published works. Secondary sources interpret or analyse historical events based on the use of primary sources. They are sources like textbooks, official publications, research projects, journals, reference books and internet materials.
Written sources: These are sources written in books or documents. For example, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, maps, articles and essays on the internet, pictures, writings on stones and walls. Written sources are examples of secondary sources because they have been used by some people. There are broadly speaking, three categories of written sources for reconstructing Nigeria’s history. These are:
- European written sources: These are written information by the Europeans especially the early explorers and geographers, missionaries and government officials who visited Africa and Nigeria. For example, the works of Mungo Park, Lander Brothers and Dr. Baikie on their visit to Africa. A major disadvantage of European written sources is that they do not present the true African or Nigerian history, as most European writers did not understand the history. European writers wrongly believe that Africa and Nigerian history only started with colonial rule or when people learnt how to read and write. They wrote what they felt or imagined about Africa and Nigeria.
- African or Indigenous written sources: These are works written by Africans and Nigerian scholars and historians about our history. For example, the ancient indigenous forms of writing like the Hausa Ajami, Ibibio Insibidi; the works of E.J Alagoa, Obaro Ikime, J.F.A. Ajayi and Sa’ad Abubakar. The early African history writers wrote to correct the inadequacies of European history on Nigerian and African history. They also establish the facts that Nigerians and Africans had history and made history before the arrival of Europeans.
- Arabic written sources: There is several written information that were written in Arabic language. They were written by Arab visitors and early Muslim scholars. For example, the work of Al-Maghili, Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, Shehu Al-min El- Kanemi and Sultan Muhammed Bello.
HOW TO ACCESS SOURCES OF HISTORY
Knowing how to access or get sources of history is a very important step in writing history. In looking for sources, it is important to bear in mind that sources could be anything that give clues on what you are writing about. There are no best or less important sources, it all depends on what you are working on.
The historian needs to know the environment, the people and available materials. It is also important to consult the library, look up list of bibliographies and references or footnotes, relate with other historians, teachers and lecturers, visit the archives and the internet, and, of course, conduct interviews. All these would help in sourcing information for writing history.