Reading Primary Documents

Primary sources are the building blocks of historical analysis.  Examples include memoirs, letters, journals, paintings, photos, cartoons, movies, songs, government documents, newspapers and magazines, material culture, buildings and landscapes, etc.  They should be evaluated critically for their usefulness and reliability.  As you read primary documents for the class, you should consider the following questions in evaluating their usefulness:

  • What kind of source is it (memoir, newspaper/magazine report, government document, diary, photograph, material item, etc.)?  Was the source published or intended for public consumption?

  • Who was the author of the source?  What do we know about them?  What sort of person do they seem to have been?  What was their gender and racial/ethnic background?  What were their political and religious affiliations?  What did the author do for a living?  What social class did they come from and what was their status in the society they lived in?  How are these characteristics reflected in the source and how might they influence how we evaluate it?  What biases do you see in the source? 

  • What were the author's motives in producing the source?  Did they write it with the intention that it would be published?  Do you perceive a specific agenda that the author had in producing the source?  Are they trying to persuade the reader of something?

  • Who was the audience for the source?  Was the source written for a public audience or for private colleagues or friends?  How might the type of audience it was aimed at influence how we evaluate the document's reliability?

  • What was the historical context in which the source was produced?  What was going on in the background as the author was writing this document?  Was the document produced at the same time as the events that it describes or significantly later? 

  • Do other primary sources from the same period, or historians' interpretations since then, support or contradict the information in the document you are examining?  How reliable does the document seem to be as a source in understanding a particular topic?  If there is a discrepancy with other accounts of the topic or event, how might this be explained?

A useful guide to evaluating different types of sources that historians use is available HERE.