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 in the period and culture under consideration. These sources provide the evidence on which art historians rely in order to interpret the document and its significance in the time and place of its creation. Some primary sources are written documents, such as letters; speeches; biographies; official decrees, religious texts, legal records, economic and trade records. In addition, historians often examine primary sources such as archaeological remains.
A Secondary Source is Defined As: A resource that discusses a previously created artwork or monument or prior period/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 Augustus or an article in a journal publication discussing the significance of Stalin. A book will NOT typically be a primary source unless it is a compilation of letters or diary entries or documents.
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 Soviet ideology and reads a book on that topic published in the 1960's, that book may be determined to be secondary but if the question is then about later European understanding of the Soviet Era, then that same book can then become primary.
1. Read the document carefully. You may be examining an artwork or a textual document composed by an historical author.
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, 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 primary source. 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 and 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 thisdocument a “clue.” Read between the lines. This is not meant to be a summary or simple description of the document. Try to say something meaningful about the document’s significance – how it adds to our understanding of a particular episode of history.
Avoid presentism. You should not focus on making comparisons/contrasts to the present day. Your job is not to decide whether an document is good or bad, or whether the commissioner or author was right or wrong; rather, you should be seeking to understand the document’s form, function, and impact.
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