Advice on Using Primary Sources to Study History

Place the source in its historical context

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

Classify the source

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

Understand the source

  • What are the key words in the source and what do they mean?
  • What point is the author trying to make? Summarize the thesis.
  • What evidence does the author give to support the thesis?
  • What assumptions underlay the argument?
  • What values does the source reflect?
  • What problems does it address? Can you relate these problems to the historical situation?
  • 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?

Evaluate the source as a source of historical information

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

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.
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.