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Primary Source Research

Resources and research strategies for finding and using primary sources in the humanities

Analyzing Primary Sources

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.

Initial Analysis

  1. What is the physical nature of your source? This is particularly important if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, written on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
  2. What is the source's purpose? What was the author's message or argument? What were they  trying to get across? Is the message explicit? Are there implicit messages as well?
  3. How does the author try to convey their message? What methods do they use?
  4. What do you know about the author? This might include, for example, race, ethnicity, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, or political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  5. Who was or is the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
  6. What can a careful reading of the text/artifact tell you? How do language and word choice work? Are important metaphors or symbols used? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

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.

  1. Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?
  2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
  3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?
  4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
  5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
  6. If we have read other historians' interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

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.

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