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How to Read a Primary Source

How to Read a Primary Source

Feb 19, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
When writing for history classes, students are often called on to read and analyze primary sources. Unfortunately, this is a task that many students just aren't prepared for. We're all used to reading textbooks and taking notes in a lecture, but what do you do when you're looking at a first-hand account of history?

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a contemporary item that presents a first-hand account of the time period you're studying. These can include books, letters, newspapers, video, census data, and a wide range of other materials. Interpretations of those materials, for example in textbooks or journal articles, are what's known as secondary sources. To help you remember the difference, think of a movie and a published review of that movie: the primary source would be the movie, and the review would be a secondary source because it's providing commentary on a primary source.
Note: The term primary source can apply to a wide variety of media. This article will focus on textual documents, but the ideas can easily be applied to items like videos, posters, and advertisements.

Finding objectivity

When looking for primary source material, you might think that you need to find a source that is completely objective - that is, a source that tells the real truth without any bias or interference from cultural values or personal feelings. In the real world, however, you're never going to find such a perfect source. People are complex and are always a product of the time and place that produced them; no one who sits down to write is going to be able to produce a truly objective record of historical events. Instead, you're likely to find documents full of the messy stuff of everyday life. But all those personal vendettas and that political posturing doesn't mean the source isn't useful - it just means that you have to do a little extra work to determine the true value of a primary source document.

P.A.P.E.R.

Obviously, you should never take a historical document at face value, which means you need to dive beneath the surface to look at where that document came from. When analyzing primary sources, you can use the acronym PAPER to help you remember the steps you need to take in order to successfully analyze both the content and context of a document.

P for Purpose

The first step in placing a document in context is to ask why the author wrote this particular text. Who is the author, and what was he or she trying to accomplish by writing this document? Is it a letter bringing news of a death to a family member? A newspaper column written by a campaigning politician? A ledger designed to keep track of military enrollment? The purpose behind a piece of writing matters, and you can't evaluate a primary source until you understand something about the motives of the author.

A for Argument

Next you should take a closer look at the content of the work and try to figure out what argument or point the author is trying to make. Can you define a clear thesis? If it's a personal document, what is the main idea the author is trying to communicate. Also pay attention to the rhetorical style of text. How does this particular work address its target audience in order to accomplish its goal?

P for Presuppositions

After you've spent time with the text, it's time to step back and have a hard look at what you bring to the table. What preconceptions and suppositions do you have about the author, the time period, or the topic of the work? How are your perceptions affecting your interpretation of the writing? Make sure you also look at how your thoughts and values might be different from those held by the people from the time period in which the primary source was written. How might these differences cause you to misinterpret the text?

E for Epistemology

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with how we acquire knowledge and that questions what, exactly, it's possible to know in the first place. When we look at a primary source, we need to ask ourselves similar questions. Now that you've looked at the context and author's motives, try to determine what factual information you can gain from the text and what parts of the work are the author's own interpretations. In other words, what do we "know" after reading this document and how do we know it? Also look at how this work could be used to support arguments from secondary sources.

R for Relate

The last step in your analysis should be to look at the primary source in relation to other documents. How is it similar or different from other works from this time period? If you find contradictions among primary sources, where do you think those discrepancies came from? Does having read this document change your opinion of other primary and secondary source material you've read?

Evaluating a primary source

The PAPER method is good for getting an overall picture of the value of a primary source, but here are a few more tips if you still need help evaluating the context, bias, or usefulness of a document.

Start with the basics

As with most things, it's good to start your analysis of a primary source with the most basic questions. Try to identify when the document was produced and by whom, as well as how it was distributed (e.g., was it a pamphlet? published in a book?). At first glance this might seem simple, but when it comes to historical documents, these questions can be harder to answer than you think. You're likely to encounter materials that are incomplete or have been partially destroyed,; for example, an old newspaper article may not list the author's name or a diary entry might not have a date. When that's the case, it's your responsibility to gather as much information as is possible and to note any important unanswered questions in your paper.

Question the author

All writing is done with a purpose. From diaries to books to letters, every time an author puts pen to paper or types out his thought, he's doing it for a reason, and understanding that reason is a vital part of analyzing primary texts. After all, just because someone once wrote it down doesn't make it true, so you have to be able to judge for yourself what was in the author's heart. Ask yourself how credible the writer is: is there something about him or her that makes you believe or disbelieve their work? Did they clearly write in an attempt to persuade or justify, or is their work designed to be strictly informative? Also ask how the author came to know about the event they're describing. Is it a first-hand account, or is the author basing his work on the word of others?

Place the document in context

Writing is never done in a vacuum. The author of any historical text that you're studying was a product of the particular time and place he or she lived in, and you need to take that fact into account in your analysis. Because we are all also products of our time, it's difficult not to bring our own biases and preconceptions to a historical document. But while it may be impossible to erase these prejudices completely, it is your responsibility to be aware of them and to gauge how they affect your own interpretation of a text.

Compare with other contemporary sources

Part of the fun of history is sorting through the wide variety of voices and opinions that shape our view of historical events. Two people can easily see the same event in completely different ways, and it's up to you as the historian to evaluate their claims and form your own interpretation. These clashing viewpoints mean that historical research can't be done by just looking at one source. In order to understand a primary document, you also need to look at other accounts from the time period. How are they similar or different? What accounts for the differences in the way the authors view a particular event? Which source do you think is more credible?

What can you learn from a primary text?

Once you've done all the work of analyzing a primary source, you can decide whether the source will be useful and whether or not you can include it in your research paper. If the source is credible, what information can you learn from it? Does it tell you something about a particular event or about the time period that produced the document? Remember, the goal of a doing research in history is to build a complete, nuanced picture of historical events, so when working with primary sources, you should always be asking yourself how the document can help shed light on that story.
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