Historical Sources

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Historical Sources


all the material directly reflecting the historical process and providing an opportunity for studying the past of human society. Historical sources thus comprise everything created at an earlier date by human society and available to us in the form of objects of material culture or written documents that permit evaluation of the manners, customs, and language of peoples. Historical sources are the basis of any historical investigation, and unless they are studied in a dialectical unity of content and form there can be no scientific knowledge of the history of the development of society. In a broad sense the quantity of historical sources is unlimited; there is much variation, however, in the number of sources preserved from different periods, which directly affects the completeness and precision of historical knowledge. Historical sources are sparsest for the primitive period; for the most part, these are material sources studied by archaeology. Written sources are of primary importance for studying the history of class society. It is customary to divide all historical sources into six groups—written, material, ethnographic, linguistic, and oral sources, as well as films, sound recordings, and photographs. Historians also make use of data from such sciences as geography and anthropology.

Written historical sources, including handwritten documents (on rock, birch bark, parchment, paper) and the printed documents of more recent periods, constitute the largest group. These written sources differ in origin (archives of the state, patrimonial estates, factories, institutions, and families), in content, and in purpose (for example, statistical economic materials, juridical documents, administrative records, legislation, diplomatic and military papers, documents from court inquests, and periodicals and newspapers). Documentary historical sources reflect isolated facts. For example, legal documents set down economic or political contracts, agreements between private individuals, or agreements between private individuals and the state. Historical sources such as these are especially trustworthy. Only the aggregate of legal, statistical, legislative, and other historical sources permits reconstruction of a picture of the society of a given period. Narrative historical sources, such as annals, chronicles, and historical tales, transmit historical events as they were perceived by the author. The information provided by narrative sources is often less reliable, but it does represent a coherent account of historical events.

Among other important historical sources are data of everyday life, manners, and customs, which are often absent from written sources and which are gathered by ethnographers. The data provided by language are studied by linguists, and orally transmitted sources, such as byliny (epic folk songs), fairy tales, songs, and proverbs, are examined by folklorists. Some historical sources may be only arbitrarily classified in a particular group. Thus, there are ethnographic sources that are studied by both archaeologists and ethnographers, and anthropological sources stand on the border between natural science and history. Social development results in a greater variety of written historical sources and in the emergence of completely new types of sources. For example, the invention and use of sound-recording devices, cameras, and motion-picture equipment has led to the creation of the special category of historical sources comprising films, sound recordings, and photographs.

The study of historical sources involves classification and the examination of origin, authorship, authenticity, and completeness.


Pushkarev, L. N. “Opredelenie istoricheskogo istochnika v russkoi istoriografli XVIII-XX vv.” In Arkheograficheskii ezhegodnik za 1966 god. Moscow, 1968.
Golubtsov, V. S. Memuary kak istochnikpo istoriisovetskogo obshchestva. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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