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First and secondhand accounts | Reading

What's the difference between a firsthand account and a secondhand account? What's the difference between a story of an event that's told by someone who was there, and one told by someone who wasn't there?

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello readers. I just got back from the library with these. Books. "Oh, big surprise," you say. I went to the library. I found two books. No, I get it, but these books will help us talk about the difference between a first and secondhand account. You see, this is a travel diary written by a young man on the Oregon Trail like 150 years ago. Whereas this is a book about the Oregon Trail written last year. A firsthand account is created by the person who experienced an event. Firsthand accounts are also called primary sources. Primary is another way to say first or original. It uses pronouns like I or me. It's told from one person's perspective. A secondhand account is more distant from the event, like a book or a newspaper article. The author wasn't there but they used firsthand accounts like interviews, diaries, photos, or video recordings to stitch the story together. The story uses pronouns like they, she, or he, not I or we. Let me show you more specifically by comparing these two passages. Okay, so this one, our firsthand account, comes from "The Diary of Horace Griggs", our young migrant on the Oregon Trail. "July 18th, 1871. "We're in the Wyoming territory now, "and it's been a few days since we had good water. "I'm starting to worry. "It's been at least a week since any of us "saw a tree. "But the buffalo chips remain plentiful. "At least the darn things burn hot." And here's the excerpt from a secondary source, our book about the Oregon Trail that came out last year. "The Oregon Trail didn't have many trees. "The pioneers used buffalo chips, "dried buffalo dung, "as fuel for their fires. "In fact, some children played games with buffalo chips. "they tossed them around like Frisbees." So we've got here two passages both about buffalo droppings, good job me. Let me be clear. It's not gross. They're mostly made of dried grass, honestly. What are the big differences between these two passages? Look at how Horace uses first person pronouns like I, or we, or us. He's telling the story from his perspective and the perspective of other people traveling with him. It's like he's telling us a story. And it's his story to tell. He was right there starting fires with buffalo chips. We can see how he felt about not having access to water. He was worried. Firsthand accounts connect us more closely with the emotions of the writer. And because he was there, he can accurately describe his experiences. However, this guy can only describe his own experience He doesn't know what it was like in other wagon trains. He doesn't know what it was like to be a Native community encountering these settlers. He's writing from one perspective, and it's his perspective. Now look at the second passage. It uses the pronouns their and they to refer to the pioneers and their kids. What does that tell us? The writer is not part of the group, wasn't there, doesn't consider themselves part of the us the way that Horace considers himself part of an us. The author is more distant. It's not the author's individual story. Instead, they're trying to tell the stories of other people through research. This is what makes it a secondary source, a secondhand account. Because secondhand accounts are more distant from the events they describe, they're usually less emotional. The author of this second passage, for example, isn't worried about anything that's happening to the pioneers. They're not even referring to a specific set of pioneers. They're talking about what these migrants did in general. They're giving you background knowledge, general knowledge. That kind of distance lets the author of a secondhand account cover more ground. They don't have to stick to the narrative of one family or one person, or even one moment in time. First and secondhand accounts are both important. When I was a kid, they used to advertise sugary cereals as part of a balanced breakfast. Little bowl of sugary cereal, a glass of milk, a bowl of fruit, maybe a sausage, some toast. Well, think of primary and secondary sources as part of a balanced information diet. A little of column A, a little of column B. You just gotta take your knowledge spoon and dig in deep into your perspectives bowl. That's a thing that I made up just now. Diversity of perspectives does a body good. You can learn anything. David out.