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Peace Studies 205

How to Analyze a Primary Source

Primary sources are the best way to understand events in the past – through the journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies that people from that period left behind.

Each historian, including you, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. 

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 information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. 

  • Physicality. This is particularly important and powerful 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, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
  • Purpose. What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  • Method. How does the author try to get the message across?
  • Context. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  • Audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
  • Careful reading. How does the language work? Are there metaphors or symbols? What can the choice of words tell you? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.

  • Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?
  • Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
  • Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?
  • What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
  • What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
  • 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?

Be selective – don’t expect to address every one of these questions in your presentation or paper!

Thanks to the history department at Carleton College for the framework for this document. apps.carleton.edu/curricular/history/resources/study/primary/

Questioning data: Slave Narratives

The WPA Slave Narratives Collection at the Library of Congress represents an ambitious effort to document the slave experience. More than one-third of the 2,300 first-person accounts were conducted during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The section entitled “The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Race and Representativeness”contains a critique of the process used in gathering the data.

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