How to Read a Primary Document for History Classes (by Professor 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.