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Primary Sources in History

This is a guide to finding, using, and evaluating primary sources in the humanities, with an emphasis on research in history.

Questions to Ask Yourself

In the case of history, our knowledge of history exists through interpretation. When using primary sources, you confront two essential facts of studying history:

1. The record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the authors/participants. Any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective. When analyzing a primary source, ask yourself these questions:

  • When was it written?
  • Can you tell the intended audience?
  • How reliable is the evidence? Some eyewitness accounts are purposely distorted in order to avoid blame or to offer praise. Some documents are written for propaganda purposes. To determine the reliability of evidence, check one source against another. Does the evidence contradict itself and does it disagree with evidence from other sources?
  • Who was the author? Why did she/he write it? Was it intended to be objective or to persuade readers to a point of view? Can you detect a bias? Often people’s attitudes toward the world influence the way they interpret events. Without meaning to, even on-the-scene judgments can be incorrect. If you are emotionally involved, this can distort your understanding of it. 
  • Besides what you can find out about the author, look at the source for internal contradictions and inconsistencies, the use of adjectives and other words that could point to the author’s hidden biases and unspoken assumptions. Do certain words or concepts keep cropping up?

2. It works both ways. You bring to the sources your own biases, created by your own personal situations and the social environments in which you live.


Web Sites

There are some excellent web sites (with much duplication) that will help you through this evaluative process: