Understanding Primary Sources
In order to make the most effective use of your primary source(s), you will need to do some additional research about the source(s).
BEFORE YOU BEGIN WORKING WITH A SOURCE, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE FOLLOWING:
- When was the source composed?
- Who composed the source?
- What do we know about the author?
- Under what conditions was the source composed?
- Was the source constructed based on legal or other formulae?
- Was it written at the time of the event? After the event? Years later?
- Does the source allude to other works? Events? People? Ideas? Are you familiar with them?
- How might the author’s perspective on the event or issue differ from that of other authors?
- How will you use the source to prove your argument?
- What are some of the limitations of this source?
- Knowing those limitations, what other sources may be necessary to complete your paper?
Additional Resources for Reading Primary Sources
National Archives: Document Analysis Worksheets – See this site for worksheets designed and developed by the Education Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration. The site offers different worksheets for diverse genres of primary sources including written texts, photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, material artifacts, motion pictures, and sound recordings.