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What are primary sources?

In The Historian’s Craft, the historian March Bloch wrote: “the historian is…absolutely incapable of observing the facts which he [or she] examines. No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses. No expert on the Napoleonic Wars has ever heard the sound of the cannon at Austerlitz. We can speak of earlier ages only through the accounts of eye-witnesses.” Another scholar more simply offered that primary sources are “materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration.” One should approach primary sources in a broad way. They are not limited to written documents (court records, letters, etc.), but also include material remains (pictures, art, architecture, movies) of a given time and place. Historians use primary sources as the foundation of their reconstruction and analyses of a moment in time and specific places. Primary sources offer those who use them a connection to the past, help them to understand complexities of studying the past, and facilitate higher-order thinking with critical thinking.

The analysis of a primary source enables all historians at any level to understand events in the past better because you are looking at resources created at the time by protagonists of that time. Regardless of the genre (more below on genre), these sources give us a direct connection to the people of the given time. There may be more than one interpretation of a source. Part of research is to discern what are often many messages in one document.

Historians, you included, come to a given source with your own, unique life experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. Remember that there is no one right interpretation. Crucial to understanding a given document, is to have some understanding of the era from which the document was created. Context, found in class readings and discussions, will help with the analyses.

Reading a primary source:

Start with reading and looking carefully at a document for content, what is written, or for an image, what is there. What are the main points? It is important to take time to glean the source(s) for what you see, but also what you do not see. When you think you understand the main content, then you could write a short summary of the document. To discern better what the document conveys, think about the following questions as you analyze the source:

  • What do you see first?
  • Do you have any questions after seeing the image?
  • Does the source evoke any ideas, thoughts?

As you analyze, think about the following:

Who is the author? What motivated the author(s) to create the document? What background do you have on the author, such as her/his/their class, ethnic, religious, gender, or cultural beliefs and assumptions might have influenced the author’s viewpoint and writing?

  • Genre: What is the nature, physical form, and genre of your source. What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on paper, on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil? Is it published? Where was it published? Why was it published?) What does this tell you? How does the genre shape the source? There are numerous genres: cartoons, posters, autobiographies, newspapers, government documents, videos, songs, laws, speeches, etc.
  • Audience: For whom was the author writing? Did he or she address any particular person or group? Did the author’s audience have any effect on the document’s content? Was the author speaking for (or representing) a particular audience? How was the document received? Is it prescriptive, telling you what its creator thought should happen–or descriptive–telling what people thought did happen?
  • Language: What can you tell about a historical period from the words, images, style used? What does the writer’s choice of words tell us about social or cultural assumptions? Have the meanings of the words changed over time? Was the document written in English or translated? What other language(s)? How might a translation have altered the document’s meaning? What role might the translator have played in shaping the document’s tone or content? What can a careful reading of the text (or the image) tell you? Are there metaphors or symbols?
  • Reliability: What can the source tell you about the past? How useful is it for understanding the past? How trustworthy is the source? Does it exclude, downplay, or ignore evidence or issues that you can verify through other sources? What is the author omitting?
  • Authenticity: Are there reasons to doubt the authorship of the document? Was the document possibly a forgery? Has it been altered in any way? If it is a transcription of someone else’s words, who was the scribe? What role might the scribe have played in shaping the document’s tone or content?
  • Influence: Was the source influential when it appeared and how does one measure influence? Was it widely disseminated and read (e.g., a pamphlet)?
  • Relationship to Other Course Theme: How does the document relate to the course or the unit’s main themes? In what ways does it connect with other parts of the course or unit?

Further Resources

Still have questions about primary sources? Visit the Supporting Inquiry with Primary Sources website, developed by staff at Waynesburg University. Check out the videos, tips on navigating the Library of Congress website and copyright/citations, primary source analysis guide, and the Teaching with Primary Sources teachers’ network. To the left is the first video on the site, an interview with Barbara Stripling, who created a framework for teaching with primary sources.

Supporting Inquiry with Primary Sources