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FNDS 3402 - Modern Crime: Jack the Ripper

Requirements for Your Research Papers

Copied directly from Jamie Wraight's FNDS 3402 Fall 2021 Syllabus:

"Each research paper must utilize at least five individual primary sources. Primary sources are documents created during a particular event. These documents can be written accounts (diaries, letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles), visual depictions (photographs, film, and video), oral history interviews or sound recordings. You must also utilize at least four appropriate and individual secondary sources to help frame your topic and help support your conclusions. At least two of these sources must come from either books (printed or e-books) or scholarly journal articles (printed or electronic)."

Doing Historical Research: Primary & Secondary Sources

Typically, historical research can be separated into two categories: Primary and Secondary. It is important to understand the differences between the two types of resources.

A Primary Source is Defined As: Materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or as witnesses. These sources provide the evidence on which historians rely in order to describe and interpret the past.  Some primary sources are written documents, such as letters; diaries; newspaper and magazine articles; speeches; autobiographies; treatises; census data; and marriage, birth, and death registers. In addition, historians often examine primary sources that are not written, like works of art, films, recordings, items of clothing, household objects, tools, and archeological remains.


A Secondary Source is Defined As: A resource that discusses a prior event from an academic or research or layperson perspective.  The key here is that the resource is from some time after the event.  An example of this would be a book about Jack the Ripper or an article in a journal publication discussing the significance of Jack the Ripper. A book will NOT typically be a primary source unless it is a compilation of letters or diary entries or documents.

Book with glasses on top

Primary vs. Secondary Source: Often times determining whether something is primary or secondary may depend on the question that is being asked. For instance, if a researcher is researching the issues around the Jack the Ripper case and reads a book on that topic published in 1900 that may be determined to be secondary but if the question is then about opinions of the Jack the Ripper case than that same book can then become primary. 

Primary and Secondary Sources Video

The video below, by librarian Joshua Vossler from the University of West Florida, will give you insight into how primary and secondary sources are related. How a source can be both primary and secondary depending on the context, and how definitions of primary and secondary sources can differ by discipline.

How to Read a Primary Document for History Classes (by UM-Dearborn History Professor Dr. Georgina Hickey)

1. Read the document carefully.

2. Think about the following questions. Some of these questions apply better to some documents than others. Some questions you may not be able to answer because of incomplete information (an obstacle historians regularly face), but you may be able to speculate based on your historical knowledge. Choose the questions (it could be several) that you think can best be used to analyze and reveal the meanings of your document. In your notes compose brief responses to these questions.

  • WHAT is this document? (letter, photo, diary, official speech, etc)
    • What historical event or phenomenon might it help me address?
  • WHO wrote this document?
    • From this document, what can we tell about the perspective of the author(s)?
    • Does the document suggest that the author(s)’ point of view was widely shared, or was it controversial and confined to a few people?
  • WHEN was this document created?
    • How does the document reflect the time when it was written or created?
    • What does it say about the events underway at the time?
    • What does it suggest about how that particular time was perceived by the author(s)?
  • WHY was this document created? What was its purpose?
  • WHO was the intended AUDIENCE?
    • How did the audience shape what the author(s) says?
    • How would the intended audience be likely to read the document?
    • How would people who were not among the intended audience be likely to read it?
  • Think carefully about the choice of WORDS in the document.
    • How do the words in the document reflect the author(s), the time, and the intended audience?
    • Does the author(s) choice of words reveal covert assumptions along with an overt message?
  • Comparison to other sources: How are the tone, perspective, and purpose of this document similar or different than others I have read on this topic?
  • After reading it, what do I still wish I knew?

3. Now step back and make a more overall assessment that includes the basics of the document (including its style/tone), its strengths and weaknesses, the historical questions it might speak to, and some conclusions about the significance of the document?

Be a detective; consider this document a “clue.” Read between the lines. This is not meant to be a summary of the document. Try to say something meaningful about the document’s significance – how it adds to our understanding of this particular episode of American History.

Avoid presentism. You should not focus on making comparisons/contrasts to the present day. Your job is not to decide whether a document is good or bad, or whether the author was right or wrong; rather, you should be seeking to understand the document’s form, function, and impact.

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