Primary sources are the most important tools for research in any field. In the humanities, primary sources might include works of literature, journals or letters. Newspaper articles, journals and telegraphs might be primary sources for historical study. The sciences might look at original studies. Analyzing these sources can provide a starting point for one's own research, helping to situate it within a historical context, identify areas for needed research or to support a thesis.
Research the author and learn everything you can about his background and potential bias. Even if a primary source was not written with an agenda in mind, an author's upbringing, education, social status, religion and other biographical details can all influence the ideas being presented in the source. For example, knowing that an author was exceptionally wealthy may undermine the argument put forth in a treatise dismissing the plight of the poor. By learning everything you can about the author, you can identify potential biases.
Consider the author's relationship to the material. For example, a letter or article that is describing the details of a battle is considered much more reliable if it was written by a person who saw the events firsthand. A letter or article describing something that someone else related may not be as reliable. An exception may be made for newspaper articles that traditionally rely on interviews with witnesses to produce the report.
Learn the intended audience for the piece. A private journal entry may be considered more reliable in some cases because the author was only writing for himself and had no reason to shape the information to elicit a certain response. An article that was written for a special interest group may be considered less reliable since it might be written to appeal to the biases of that group. Knowing the audience can help you determine any bias or ulterior motive in the source material.
Place the source in historical context. A letter that argues for the legalization of same-sex marriage may not be considered shocking if it was written in 2014. However, that same letter written in 1814 would be considered radical in almost any society. You must put the source in context of historical events and cultural mores. You should also identify any events that might have influenced the writing of the material, such as an essay written in response to economic changes after a war. You should also identify the influence that the source material had, if any. While a work may seem provocative, your research may show that there was no cultural response at the time of its publication.
Analyze the intent of the material. Determine if the source was written to simply provide a record of events, such as a newspaper article or historical account, or whether it was written to interpret or analyze events to put forth an argument. If the author intended to advance an argument with the material, that will change the way you evaluate the source, including whether the argument was successful and what biases are contained in it.
Inspect the physical document if it is available. You can learn a lot of information from the clues you find there. For example, if a letter is found to have water damage, it could mean that the author cried while writing it. If a letter is written on expensive paper, it could be evidence of wealth. These clues can provide more information about the author, the historical context or even the intent of the writing. Inspecting the physical document can also help you to determine its authenticity. If you can't access the original document, use other tools at your disposal to determine the authenticity of the writing, such as other historical and biographical research.
Create a thesis statement for your analysis. Once you have all the information you can gather about your primary source, you must create a strong statement that unifies your analysis. For example, your thesis may be that the writing caused a great deal of social upset at the time it was published but that it failed to have any lasting historical value. Your thesis will be determined by your research.
Answer these questions about your source in the analysis. Be as thorough as you can be. You may not have arrived at a clear answer for all questions about your source, but you should be thorough in explaining what you did uncover. Don't just provide historical and biographical details. Provide context and interpret your results, showing what influence or importance the information has.
Provide supporting details. If you were able to access an original document, provide a photocopy of it. Include a works cited page that includes your primary source and any secondary sources you used to research it, such as biographies, historical accounts and other research into the material.
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images