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HOW TO ANALYZE A PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT

You will be answering these six questions in the worksheet below.  For your convenience, click here for a downloadable copy of this list of questions.

1. Who is the author of the document?    

In analyzing a primary source document, simply knowing the name of the person who wrote it is not enough, you also need to learn something about the author to understand his/her point of view and biases. Give the name of the author and provide a brief biographical comment.  Please think about the definition of an author.  Is an author someone who merely translates or edits a collection or the originator of the document in the historical past?  Do not confuse editors and translators with authors.

2. When was this document written?  How long after the event was it written?Okay, sometimes this is obvious and sometimes it takes a bit of sleuthing and critical thinking skills to figure out.  In this class you will find all the information you need to know to answer questions like these from the assigned materials.  If someone writes about an event they were part of in their diary that same day, you will get fresh, first-hand account, but it will also lack perspective.  If someone writes about an event in their memoirs later, you will have a fading of memory but the author will also have a better picture of the importance of an event and the impact it had on later events.  Both are valid primary sources, but you have to use them differently.

3. What is the subject of the document? 

Here a brief (1-3 sentences) summary is needed.

4. Where does the action contained in this document take place?  Is it important to the subject of the document?  What is the relationship of the author to the action?Asking this question of a document is very important as it speaks to the biases of the author and also as to the types of information the author should reasonably have. As you have seen in this course, historical geography is important.  Does geography have any bearing in your document? Is the author present at the event? 

5. Why did the author write this document?  Who is his audience?  What does he hope to gain from writing this document?  What is his point of view? 

All of these questions speak to the author’s bias.  Every time you write, you write for an audience (even if it is only for yourself).  There is a purpose to writing.  The author wants to gain something from writing; the historian’s job is to understand the motivation behind the creation of document and the biases inherent within.  Sometimes an author will modify what he/she is saying to impress a particular audience (or to get the audience to do something he/she wants) or to excuse their own actions.  Understanding why the author will help you better use the document and interpret history.

6. Taking the above answers into account, how accurate do you find this document?  What would be the drawbacks of using this document? What would this document help a historian to explain/analyze?

Historians ask questions like these (and more) of each and every primary source they use in interpreting the past.  This is critical thinking.  It is a skill that needs to be learned through practice, but can also be used to analyze almost any situation or source of information in life.  Every document/source has its advantages and drawbacks; this is why historians never rely on only one document.  Historians utilize multiple primary sources and multiple points of view when analyzing the past.  History is not just one person’s opinion; it is a careful reading and analysis of multiple perspectives to answer the questions of not only what, but why.

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