Interpreting Primary Sources

Interpreting Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source? A primary source is a piece of living history.  It may be defined as any artifact that provides first hand or direct information about the past.  Primary sources may include first person accounts (e.g. oral histories, diaries, memoirs, correspondence), documents (e.g. correspondence, treaties, laws, speeches), images (e.g. maps, photographs, drawings, paintings), or historically gathered data.

How do you begin to interpret a primary source? 
Begin analyzing a primary source, such as a spy letter, by answering the following questions:

  • Who created the source and why?
  • What sorts of information does the source supply?
  • Under what circumstances was the source created?  How would this influence the content of the source?
  • For whom was the source created?
  • Was the source meant to be public or private?
  • Did the creator wish to inform, persuade, or deceive his or her audience?  What did the creator hope to accomplish by writing the source? Can you trust the source's content at face value?
  • What were the opinions, motivations, or interests of the creator?  How does his or her point of view compare to other writers of the period?  What kind of impact would this have on the content of the source?
For analyzing images, the following questions are also a starting point:
  • Why was the image created?
  • What does the image reveal about its subject?
  • What is the point of view of the image? Whose story is it telling?
  • What is the setting of the image?  What sorts of details does it include or emphasize?  What sorts of details does it exclude?
  • What are the underlying messages of the image and motives of the artist?
  • How long after the event was the image created?  how does this influence the image's content or perspective?
Source: <http://www2.si.umich.edu/spies/lounge-sources.html>
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