A primary source analysis is the most important tool a historian or a student of history can employ to gain a deeper understanding of the events and people of the past. A primary source could be a journal, a letter, a newspaper article, even artwork or music–anything that was created and left behind during the time period or the event you are researching.

Analyzing the Primary Source

  • Pay close attention to the physical appearance of the object you are studying. If it is a letter, was it written on fancy stationery with elegant handwriting? Or was it scribbled on tattered paper? Visual clues can help you to better understand the person who created or produced the primary source, and their state of mind or physical circumstances at the time.
  • Consider what, if anything, you know about the author or creator of the primary source. Gender, age, religion, occupation–these are just a few factors which may have influenced the author’s perception of an event or time period.
  • Decide whether the source is prescriptive or descriptive. If it is prescriptive, then it reflects the author’s opinions or predictions about what she thought would or should happen. If it is descriptive, then it is the author’s description of what she saw or heard.
  • Determine the intended audience of the source. A source intended to be private, such as a journal, will carry different implications than a source intended for the public eye, such as a newspaper article.
  • Remember that any author or creator of a primary source will always have their own bias in terms of an event or another person. Analyze the document carefully, keeping in mind that this is one person’s opinions and perceptions and so may not tell the whole story. An author who was lady-in-waiting to a duchess may have a very different story to tell about her than an author who was the duchess’s friend and peer.
  • Remember that the closer the connection between the author and the time, place or event described, the more reliable the source. An author who actually fought in a battle is a more reliable source than an author who recounts what his older brother related to him about that battle.

Writing the Analysis

  • Give your analysis paper a title which reflects its place and importance in history.
  • Include a photograph or photocopy of your source in your analysis.
  • Your primary source analysisshould answer the following four questions:1. What does the source reveal about the time period?
    2. What person or event was the source produced in response to?
    3. What larger historical context or question does this source help to shed light on?
    4. How does the timing of the source’s production relate to other social, political and economic events going on at the same time?
  • Always include a works cited page which includes your primary source itself, as well as any other secondary sources you may have consulted for your research and interpretation.

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