How to Do Primary Source Analysis

Primary sources give researchers a direct window into historical events and figures.
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Analyzing primary sources is an important component of historical study for historians and greatly furthers our understanding of historical events. Primary sources can include journals, newspaper articles, letters, artwork, music and literature, among numerous examples. There's a structured method by which primary sources, or documents from a certain period in history, can be analyzed to understand the reasons and context behind a document's creation. Understanding where a document comes from helps historians to understand what the document reveals about the history of a place or people.

Apply the "time and place rule," which dictates that the stronger the connection between a document's source to the event it is discussing, the more reliable the source. So a firsthand account of a riot by a participant in that riot is a more reliable source than someone who heard about the riot and wrote an account of it 50 years after it occurred.

Apply the "bias rule," which reminds historians that all historical documents contain some sort of bias, depending on their source. Keep in mind the author of the document, and his role in events, when analyzing it for historical data, as the document conveys only that person's version of events or opinions.

Consider the audience of the document. Who was the author directing his writing or art to, and why? Was this source only meant to be seen by the author, or by a wider public? Would this affect how the source was created and what message it is intended to send?

Study the primary source itself in depth to see if there is symbolism or metaphor in the writing or artwork. If so, what is this symbolism or metaphor meant to convey? What does the author's word choice or subject choice tell you about the primary source? How was the source created, and what physical elements do you notice about it?

Evaluate the primary source in the context of your own historical study. What does this source contribute to your study of history? What information or discoveries can you glean from this primary source, and what does this information or discovery add to your understanding of the historical period you're studying?

Alissa Kinney is a full-time professional in the communications field, with an AB from Brown University and an MA in Writing & Publishing from Emerson College. She has years of experience as an editor and writer, and has been published in The Blue Doors, Our Town Brookline, Art New England and Body + Soul.