When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand past events than by examining the sources that people from that period left behind (e.g., whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies).
Each historian, including you, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. While there is no one right interpretation, interpretations should still be supported by evidence and analysis. If you do not do a careful and thorough analysis, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation.
In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself and the era from which it comes. You can base your knowledge on class materials and other credible sources. You'll also need to analyze the document itself. The following questions may be helpful for your analysis of the document as an artifact and as a source of historical evidence.
Evaluating the Source as Historical Evidence
You'll also want to evaluate how credible the source is and what it tells you about the given historical moment.
Remember, you cannot address each and every one of these questions in your presentation or in your paper, and I wouldn't want you to. You need to be selective.
Credit: Thank you to Carleton College's History Department for permission to adapt their resource "How to Analyze a Primary Source." (Minor additions or changes made to the original text). Original text created by Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others.