Firsthand (First person) vs. Secondhand (Third person) Histories

The chart below summarizes some of the major advantages and disadvantages of the two categories of historical writing.

  Firsthand (first person) Secondhand (third person)
Advantages
  • The writer saw the events for himself. Eyewitnesses are used to establish fact in courts of law.
  • The writer can record the emotions, as well as the facts, for he experiences them for himself.
  • The writer can place an event in its historical context to judge its overall importance.
  • The writer has the potential of being more objective because he is not personally involved.
  • The writer can evaluate multiple sources with multiple viewpoints for a more complete picture.
Disadvantages
  • The writer's viewpoint is limited.
  • The writer's perceptions can be wrong. Perception of fact and fact itself are two different things.
  • The writer may be biased or prejudiced. He may try to look better than he is.
  • The writer may not be able to see the "big picture."
  • The writer must rely on the records and impressions of others, not his own; in other words, he must use firsthand or older secondhand sources.
  • Records can "mutate" as they are passed from one writer to another to another etc. This is like playing "telephone" or "whisper."
  • The writer may have a difficult time separating "fact" from "perception" in the records he uses.
  • The writer may not want to accept certain facts; he may try to "slant" history; this is called "revisionist history."