One strength of memoirs as historical documents is that they provide eye-witness accounts of historical events, though this also ties into their weaknesses as shall be discussed below. However, the greatest strength of memoirs as historical documents is in humanizing historical figures. In the scheme of greater history, historical figures run the risk of appearing merely as abstractions rather than flesh-and-blood human beings who lived and acted and made decisions and had relationships and so forth. The memoir gives us insight into the humanity of the individuals who wrote them and offers insight into their perspective on the events they participated in.
The greatest weakness of memoirs as historical genres is that human memory is notoriously fallible. Further, even without suggesting that the author of the memoir could deliberately lie, the author likely has an agenda to portray himself in a positive light, which could potentially lead to distorting the facts, deliberately or subconsciously. These flaws combine to make memoirs an unreliable narration that the reader must evaluate critically.
Memoirs are an ideal source of historical information. Their primary strength lies in providing detail that other secondary sources could have missed. While writing memoirs, individuals often document what they remember based on their perception of each event’s importance. They could include information based on how the environment engaged their senses, such as sight and smell, which secondary sources may not contain. Hence, details that a secondary author may have considered unnecessary contribute significantly to the effectiveness of memoirs in providing extensive information.
Nonetheless, an author’s perspective presents a weakness for using memoirs as historical sources. Memoirs could likely be biased if an author writes from their perspective. However, historians using memoirs often address the challenge by consulting multiple sources addressing a situation and compare them before concluding the event. In other cases, authors could include other primary sources related to an event to improve confidence in their material. Despite the remedies, bias is a common risk observed in using memoirs as historical sources.