Analyzing Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources

letter from whistler to paul
Via Library of Congress

Historians look for evidence of their time period in primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include items such as diaries, letters, court documents, the objects people used, and the places they lived. What the historian creates after examining the primary sources is considered the secondary source. This can be in the form of what was found, an analysis of the time period or by tying pieces together to create a story about the past.

History books are generally considered secondary sources, because they are compilations of data. However, a town history can be considered a primary source when you are looking at the author – evidence of the author’s life experiences and world view can be found.

Historians look at primary sources to find evidence from the past. Secondary sources use primary source evidence to figure out the past and create a narrative of the time. Historians dream of finding fresh evidence in primary sources so they can create a new interpretation of a historical time.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Artifacts
  • Audio recordings/movies/radio programs
  • Diaries, journals or memoirs
  • Interviews – oral, phone or email
  • Letters
  • Newspaper or journal articles written at the time
  • Court documents – birth/death certificate, marriage license, trial transcripts
  • Patents
  • Records from meetings and conferences
  • Documents from organizations and governmental agencies
  • Photographs, postcards, notecards and other ephemera
  • Speeches
  • Art, literature, music and architecture
  • Websites

magnifying glass
Ask These Questions to Learn More About Primary Sources

Historians seek out primary sources to find evidence to answer questions about the past – what happened and why. Answering a few basic questions about the source can help draw accurate conclusions about it.

Answer as many of these questions as you can when looking at a primary source.

  1. What is it? A letter, diary, court document, newspaper article? Was it written on elegant stationery or on scrap paper, in pen or pencil?
  2. When was it written? The date can be a determining factor if the item is a primary source or a secondary source, especially for newspaper articles.
  3. Who wrote or made it? Who was the author? What background information do you know about the author: race, sex, class, occupation, age, geographic region, political or religious beliefs? Does any of this affect the validity of the source, and how?
  4. Can you tell why they wrote it? Was it for personal use or publication? What was the author trying to get across? What was the message or argument of the document?
  5. Who was the intended audience/user? Was the message meant for the public, or for one person (i.e., letter) What impact does that have on the source?
  6. Where was it written?
  7. How was it written or made? What methods were used in the creation of the item?
  8. What evidence does this source contribute to my research? What do the author’s words, or lack thereof, tell you? Remember to consider the silences of a piece.
  9. What questions does this source raise? What do we know not about this source or the author?
  10. What does the source tell us? Is it prescriptive, telling what people thought would happen, or is it descriptive, telling what people thought did happen? Does it describe the ideology of the time, or the behavior? Does the source tell about the actions or beliefs of ordinary people, or the elite? From whose perspective?
  11. What other information do we have about this document or object? What information do we not have?
  12. What other sources are like this one? How might those sources help answer questions about this source? What have others said about this source or ones that are similar?
  13. What else do we need to know in order to understand the evidence in this source?
  14. How does this source help answer your research questions? What are the benefits of using this source?
  15. What are the limitations of this source? What questions can it not help answer?
  16. How does this source alter or fit into current or existing interpretations of the past? How does your analysis of the source fit into this scheme? Do you think this evidence supports or challenges current arguments?
  17. How does evidence from this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?

Gathering as much information as possible about your source will help you determine if it is valid and valuable. Sometimes sources appear to be useful and you later determine that it isn’t, particularly if you find that the author had a completely different viewpoint than you do.

My name is Marsanne Petty, and I’m a researcher through and through. I chase obscure topics into the end of oblivion and compile what I find for all to read. Sometimes my family thinks I’m crazy, but my dogs are good with it. If you want to follow me down the rabbit hole, check out my stuff here and here. If you want some great oddities in your own mail box, sign up at The Southern Sage.

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