World History


Then Again




Understanding Primary Sources



Historians get their information from two different kinds of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are first hand sources; secondary sources are second-hand sources. For example, suppose there had been a car accident. The description of the accident which a witness gives to the police is a primary source because it comes from someone actually there at the time. The story in the newspaper the next day is a secondary source because the reporter who wrote the story did not actually witness it. The reporter is presenting a way of understanding the accident or an interpretation..

Primary sources are interesting to read for their own sake: they give us first hand, you-are-there insights into the past. They are also the most important tools an historian has for developing an understanding of an event. Primary sources serve as the evidence an historian uses in developing an interpretation and in building an argument to support that interpretation. You will be using primary sources not only to help you better understand what went on, but also as evidence as you answer questions and develop arguments about the past.

I. Reading a primary source.

Primary Sources do not speak for themselves, they have to be interpreted. That is, we can't always immediately understand what a primary source means, especially if it is from a culture significantly different from our own. It is therefore necessary to try to understand what it means and to figure out what the source can tell us about the past.

To help you interpret primary sources, you should think about these questions as you examine the source:

A. Place the source in its historical context.

  • 1. Who wrote it? What do you know about the author?
  • 2. Where and when was it written?
  • 3. Why was it written?
  • 4. To what audience is it addressed? What do you know about this audience?

B. Classify the source.

  • 1. What kind of work is it?
  • 2. What was its purpose?
  • 3. What are the important conventions and traditions governing this kind of source? Of what legal, political, religious or philosophical traditions is it a part?

C. Understand the source.

  • 1. What are the key words in the source and what do they mean?
  • 2. What point is the author trying to make? Summarize the thesis.
  • 3. What evidence does the author give to support the thesis?
  • 4. What assumptions underlay the argument?
  • 5. What values does the source reflect?
  • 6. What problems does it address? Can you relate these problems to the historical situation?
  • 7. What action does the author expect as a result of this work? Who is to take this action? How does the source motivate that action?

D. Evaluate the source as a source of historical information.

  • 1. How typical is this source for this period?
  • 2. How widely was this source circulated?
  • 3. What problems, assumptions, arguments, ideas and values, if any, does it share with other sources from this period?
  • 4. What other evidence can you find to corroborate your conclusions?

II. Be Your Own Interpreter

It is very tempting in a course of this kind to use the textbook as a source of interpretations. If you encounter a primary source which you don't entirely understand it seems easiest to look up the proper interpretation in the text, rather than trying to figure it out for your self. In this course I would like to encourage you to develop your interpretation. This process will take some patience, some imagination, some practice and a lot of hard work on your part. But you will be developing an important, transferable skill and also the tools and attitudes you need to develop to think on your own.

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