"Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or as witnesses," (A Pocket Guide to Writing History, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007).
These primary sources are what historians, art and literary critics, researchers, etc. rely on to interpret history, movements, and events. Primary sources differ based on subject. For history they are first hand accounts of an event, topic, or time period. These sources can be diary entries, laws, ephemeral such as fliers, newspaper articles, photographs, speeches, etc. For art, primary sources are any original artistic piece. Such as paintings, sculptures, music, plays, poetry, and any other original form of artistic creation.
For information on how to find primary sources, check out the Recommended Databases page on the left hand side.
Secondary sources are written about primary sources or past events. Secondary sources can be reviews of art, textbooks, encyclopedias, analysis or criticism of other works or events, and newspapers or news media.
For information on how to find secondary sources, check out the Recommended Databases page on the left hand side.
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.
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.