"The Backs of Books"

by Mark Tully


"Knowledge is of two kinds. We can know a subject ourselves, or we can know where we can be informed upon it. When we inquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books are upon it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and the backs of books in libraries." ­ Dr. Samuel Johnson1

Whenever I find a "new" book on the American Revolution, the first thing I do is turn to the bibliography to see if there are any new and unusual primary sources.

Primary sources are anything originally written or illustrated during or just prior to your period of portrayal. They can include diaries, orderly books, instruction manuals, histories, sketches, sculptures, paintings, or engravings created within your historical time frame.

Secondary sources ­ modern histories or material created using primary sources as a reference ­ can be valuable too, but seeing the original source, in its original context, and drawing your own conclusions from it, gives an added sense of accomplishment and increases your understanding of your subject. As Dr. Johnson points out in the quote above, secondary sources can often be most valuable for their bibliographies. "The backs of books" can offer you ideas on where to search for primary sources.

Primary sources are not as difficult to find as it may seem. Many 18th-century journals and diaries have already been published, and many more can be found preserved on microfilm. Many of these microfilms can be obtained through inter-library loan or copies can sometimes be purchased. Don't be afraid to ask your local librarian for ideas, you might be surprised at the resources they have available! I have found that most librarians will rise to the challenge of helping you locate old or rare items and microfilms ­ it's what they are trained to do and they often jump at the opportunity to do something other than scanning library cards.

Physical artifacts from the period are the ultimate primary source and are not all that hard to come by ­ you might be surprised at what you can find at your local historical site or museum. Local historical societies can also hold many treasures, and they continually receive new donations from individuals or family estates. Just because you live in an area that was not settled during the time period you want to research does not mean you should overlook these local resources. Many museums hold family treasures that have been passed down from one generation to the next, and some may have originated in another part of the country or world. Be sure to talk to the curators. If you ask the right questions you can often glean leads to additional artifacts and information.

There are also many books full of photographs of period paintings and artifacts. Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution is one of the more common titles available, and there are several others that are currently in print. "Sketchbook" publications are technically secondary sources but, if they're well done and list their sources, they can offer valuable information and ideas on where to find additional information or artifacts.

Don't overlook books on prominent artists of the period. Although paintings often depict the upper classes, you can often gather valuable knowledge from looking at the fine details and background figures. Prominent artists of the 18th century include: William Hogarth (England), David Morier (England), Sir Joshua Reynolds (England), John Singleton Copley (America/England), Thomas Gainsborough (England), Jean Claude Chardin (France), Maurice-Quentin De La Tour (France) Adam Frederich Oeser (Germany).

Good luck in your research!

CAUTION: Historical research can be addictive. From the moment you find that first piece of documentation, you are likely to become obsessed with finding more and more. You will frustrate your family by planning entire vacations around visits to historical sites, art galleries, and libraries. You will write letters and send faxes to far away places seeking information. You will risk your job making volumes of personal photocopies. You will need to take out a second mortgage to pay your phone bill. And, you will spend endless hours in front of your word-processor compiling, cataloging, and publishing your findings.



Some Primary Sources

Diaries and Journals:

Barker, The British In Boston

James Boswell, London Journal

James Boswell, The Ominous Years

James Boswell, Tour to the Hebrides

Diary of Frederick MacKenzie

General Howe's Orderly Book

Stephen Kemble's Journal

American Journal of Ambrose Serle

J.P. Martin, Private Yankee Doodle

Specht, A Military Journal of the Burgoyne Campaign

18th-century archeology:

History Written with a Pick and Shovel, Calver and Bolton, NY Historical Society.

Archeological Investigation of Fort Ligonier, by Jacob Grimm, Pittsburg PA

Microfilm Collections:

Check with your local university or State Historical Society. Microfilm can be borrowed or purchased from University Microfilm Service.

Published Compilations:

Peter Force, American Archives

George Washington Papers (several different series by different editors)

Commanger/Morris, Spirit of '76

Dann, The Revolution Remembered

Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Notes: 1) Boswell the Ominous Years, 1774-1776, edited by Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1963, p 151.