A Personal Source Analysis

In my second ever history class, Dr. Jon Earle asked us to define a primary source and give some examples. We offered the typical response: letters, recordings, government documents, etc. He then asked us which primary sources existed that described our own lives At the time, this question bothered me. We weren’t historically relevant people, we were just a handful of college kids, and when students began suggesting planners, syllabuses, and text messages I rolled my eyes. Surely the paper and digital minutia of our lives could not be of interest to historians years, decades, or centuries from now?

Four years later, as I sort through the contents of my desk, I find a pen from my first year club expo, a folded history paper, my tour guide name tag, and my travel diary from El Salvador and Belize. These are scraps of my life, personal primary sources. For a dispassionate historian, the essay (written about Chinese and Carribean pirates), might suggest my interest in powerful women in warfare, or based on Dr.Harney’s comments, the level of kindness and engagement of Centre professors. The travel journal might be a real goldmine for some historian curious about how Americans were perceiving Central America during my time or interested in Centre’s history of study abroad.

Knowing that one day my historical eye will likely be turned to somebody else who never thought their own items would be important to a historian, I feel grateful that I am able to think of these items in this way. I understand now that in the future I will be grateful for such small but important reminders of my life here. For example, I am sure that no historian could infer that I saved that essay because I presented at least six drafts of it to Dr.Harney (who was exceedingly patient with an anxious first year) before submitting it and that it was the first project I ever produced that made me feel capable and excited.

Though it is possible that one day these items will be discarded or forgotten, I value my ability view them both as sentimental objects, and as primary sources that tell me something about the life I have lived. Not only do we as historians engage and study the stream of human life and production, but that we shape it, produce it, and alter it. For as long as Centre’s archives exist, there will be a record that Colleen Coyle from Logan, Utah attended Centre College from 2015 – 2019. Not only will I get to hold onto a piece of Centre for the rest of my life, but it will also get to hold on to me.

In the blink of an eye, my time writing for CentreTrail and my undergraduate career at Centre is at an end. Working with Dr. Strauch and Dr. Harney has been a spectacular way to cap my time studying history here, and I feel very honored to have shared this platform with them and with anyone who has taken the time to listen to and read CentreTrail.

Thank you especially to Dr.Harney, who taught my first ever history class, and to Dr. Earle, for his unending support and encouragement. Thank you to Dr.Stephen Dove who, even though he moved on to bigger and better things, gave me a taste of Latin American history and it’s many possibilities. Dr.Tubb, my advisor, thank you for always being real with me and hearing me out. I owe a special thank you to Dr. Egge and Dr. Strauch for showing me that strong women have a place in history and to Dr. Beaudoin for shepherding me through the senior seminar process. I chose the discipline as much for amazing faculty, as I did for my love of history, and I haven’t looked back once.

As historians, it is our job to live in the past. We spend time pouring over the paper trail of the past, soaking up the experiences and lives of those who came before. Sometimes our fascination with the past prevents us from examining our own present, and we fail to see how we have shaped the very history that we are so enamored with. I will graduate with gratitude for Centre College’s history department, who taught me how to hold the past, present, and future in my hand at the same time, and that as much as the world influences me, I influence it in return.


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