16 How to Read Primary Sources, Part I: The Basics

As you learned above, historians depend upon two types of sources, primary and secondary. While secondary sources are shaped by the requirements of their genre—a certain uniformity follows when everyone respects scholarly standardsprimary sources emerge out of an almost infinite number of circumstances. Consider for a moment the differences between a priest writing a theological treatise in the fifteenth century and a rap musician producing a digital recording in the twenty-first century. Their vocabularies and tools of production, their understanding of who their audiences were, even the present-day physical properties of these sources and the means by which they are accessed are dramatically different. Both sources could reveal information about the culture, beliefs, and politics of their time, but figuring out those messages requires different interpretative skills. Accounting for the context in which your source was created, so that you can discern what it is saying, is where the fun begins.

In the information that follows, you’ll find basic directions on what questions to ask of each primary source, as well as some suggestions about best practices, or recommended steps to follow as you evaluate primary sources. But in the end, as the researcher you have a good deal of latitude in considering sources, and the variability between sources requires you to become a bit of an expert in the unique qualities (type of source, when, and for whom, your source was created) of your sources’ context. With that latitude, however, comes responsibility. You must attempt to learn as much as you can about the circumstances of your source’s creation, and guard against letting your assumptions influence your interpretation.

To make sure you live up to that responsibility, keep the following list of basic questions at hand when you read your source, and make notes to yourself (NOT on the source!) about your impressions. Follow up as well with outside sources (linked below) that explain differences in how to approach sources by type—these essays and interviews offer insights about what you can make of a diary, or how to “read” a photo or map, or the best methods for extrapolating from sources that are meaningful only in the aggregate. Last, consider consulting with your instructor and/or an archivist after you’ve taken a first or second pass toward interpreting your sources’ meaning. You’ll find that professional historians and archivists like this part of their job—thinking about the “stuff of history”—best and will willingly add their questions and insights to your impressions.

Types of primary sources

Creating this list is virtually impossible because the permutations are almost endless, but the following list suggests just how many different artifacts of the past exist. Click the hyperlinked examples for more information on how to use or interpret the type of primary source.

  • Private correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Scholarly writings
  • Oral histories of famous people and ordinary people
  • Works of art, including musical scores and recordings
  • Photographs
  • Architecture, furniture, tools
  • Coins, inscriptions, cornerstones
  • Government documents
  • Laws (passed and considered)
  • Diplomatic dispatches
  • Court records, police reports
  • Blogs, Magazines, Newspapers
  • Advertisements
  • Podcasts, videos, films, TV shows
  • Screenplays, plays, novels, poems, short stories
  • Membership lists, minutes, club records
  • Sports scores
  • Scientific accounts
  • Business accounts
  • Recipes and cookbooks
Primary or Secondary Source?


Questions you should ask about written documents

Part I- The basics

  • Is this a primary source? Is it authentic (not a fraud)?
  • What sort of primary source is it? (newspaper, letter, map, image, government report….)
  • What in brief is the document saying?
  • Who created the document? About when? Why (that is, for what audience and purpose)?

Part II – Are you reading the document fairly and/or correctly?

  • Remember, the past is a different country. Do you need to know something else (the meaning of words, who someone was, the state of technology, etc.) to understand this document? If so, what?
  • Any information you can infer or “read between the lines” or interpret based on something NOT said/portrayed? Silences are often important.

Part III – Assessing credibility. Keep in mind that your answers to these questions depend on what information you are claiming for the document.

  • Was creator of the document in a good place to observe or record the event? If not, why not? (The answer to this question depends on what main claim you see the document making.)
  • In what way might the creator have been biased? How might that shape the ‘truth’ of this document? Does the testimony/story seem probable?
  • Who preserved the document and why? Can you infer anything from that about preservation? (Not always pertinent, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some voices get privileged over others in the historical record, and we must make allowances for that in our interpretations.)
  • Where might you find corroboration for any interpretive points you find compelling? (That is, you’ll need to solidify support for your argument. What other sorts of primary sources might help do that?)

To develop your expertise in particular kinds of sources, please consider reading these essays on making sense of evidence written by practicing historians at History Matters, a digital collection of information and skills necessary for US History.

This web site on Learning to do Historical Research, created by students of noted historian William Cronon, offers some important insights both about how to approach primary sources, and about how asking questions about your sources might help you narrow your research paper topic. Also see Choosing and Narrowing A Topic for additional tips on how to narrow down a topic.

You might also consider some helpful strategies for making sure you cover the bases in interpreting your primary sources. For example, here is an explanation of the “Four Reads” method from teachinghistory.org.

Approaching Other Genres

While many primary sources can only be found in out-of-the-way archives, there is a wealth of sources that come pre-bound in collections of classics; which is to say literature. Despite being fictional, literature can reveal quite a lot about the author’s time and situation if you know where and how to look. Below are some tips for how to read literary works as a primary source.

Literary Works

As narrative texts with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, literary works require a different approach to reading than that described in the previous sections of this chapter. Literary works should be read from “front to back.” They should not, however, be read passively.

When reading novels, short stories, or plays ask yourself the following series of questions. They will help you to understand how the author constructed the story, what she wanted to say, and how successful she was in the endeavor.  As come up with an approximate answer for each question, you will develop a deeper and more complete understanding of the work.

  • Theme:
    • What is this story about?
    • What is its point (say it in no more than 10 words)?
    • What is the central idea of the work?  Its message?
    • How does this abstract, central idea become concrete through the characters and events?
  • Setting:
    • Where does the action take place?  Any particular reason that this is an appropriate choice?
    • When does the action take place?  Why did the author choose to set the work in this time?
    • How does time and place of action, the environment of the story, interact with the characters?
  •  Characterization:
    • Who are the principal characters?
    • What kind of people are they?  What motivates them?  What is their “psychology”?

Pay particular attention to the following:

    • What does the narrator say about them?
    • What do they say about each other?
    • What do they say about themselves?
    • What do their actions say about them?
    • What do they look like (physical description)?
    • Do they have a past?
  • Narrative Technique:

    • Who is telling the story?  (be careful not to confuse the narrator with the author)
    • Is the narrator omniscient?  Of limited knowledge?  Third person?  First person?
    • How would you characterize the narrator? (educated/uneducated, cynical/satirical, naive/disingenuous, etc.)
    • Does the narrator have a particular point of view?  Are there other points of view in the work?
    • What is the narrator’s agenda?  Why is s/he telling the reader this story?
    • Does the narrator manipulate the reader?  How?  Why?
    • How does the narrator “control” the story?
  •  Structure:

Structure is the conscious patterning, or configuration, of events and situations; plot is the basic element of structure.

    • Does the work follow the traditional five-part structure?: Exposition; rising action; climax; falling action; denouement
    • What liberties does the work take with traditional structure?  What might this achieve?
    • Is structure concrete or abstract?
    • Is there a “frame” or other structural device?  Why do you think the author uses it?
  •  Style:
    • What is interesting about the way the story is written?

What are the primary technical aspects of the author’s language?

    • long or short sentences?
    • dialogue or narrative?
    • repetition?
    • lexical levels?
    • imagery? (natural, organic, animal, mechanical, visual, olfactory, tactile, abstract, etc.)
    • figurative language?  (metaphors?  similes?  synecdoches?,  etc.)
    • allegories? symbols?
    • What is it about this author’s work that makes it specifically his and not someone else’s?
    • Can you tell this writer apart from others by his/her personal style?  What are the clues?
  •  Extrinsic Factors:
    • How does knowledge of social, political, or economic conditions help you understand the work?
    • What role does the historical period play in creating or enhancing the meaning of the work?
    • What of the author’s life? Friends and colleagues?  Interests, language, culture?
    • What is their role in contributing to the meaning of the work?

If you would like an example of how to examine a work of literature click the following link: Analyzing a Melville Story



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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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