Analyzing primary sources: An introduction

This is the first in a series of posts about how to analyze different types of primary sources.

Let’s talk about analyzing primary sources. First, what are primary sources?

Primary sources are original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. [emphasis mine, source]

Examples of primary sources include diaries, letters, photographs, newspaper articles and books written at the time, and documents created at the time (everything from birth certificates to business meeting minutes). If you keep a journal about your college experience, Instagram photos of what you eat, or email your parents, those are all primary source documents for 2013. Here in Special Collections, we preserve primary sources so people can use them in their research.

There are a few steps to take when looking at a primary source: identify, contextualize, explore, analyze, and evaluate. These steps help researchers understand the primary source and why it might be relevant to their topic. Let’s use this poster as an example.

Defense billboard poster for June, 1987

Click for a larger image.

Identify

  • What is the nature of the source? Is it a newspaper, a map, a painting, a PDF?
  • Who created the source, and what do I know about him/her/them?
  • When and where was the source produced?
  • How do these factors affect how I consider the source?

Contextualize

  • What do I know about the historical context for this source? (What was going on in the time and place that this source was created?)
  • What do I know about the creator of this source that fits into that historical context?
  • Why did the person(s) who created the source do so?
  • Who was the audience?

Explore

  • What factual information is presented?
  • What opinions are related?
  • What is conveyed or implied intentionally and unintentionally?
  • What is not said in the source? (Are there any obvious points of view, perspectives, or factual information that were left out of this source? Why might that be?)
  • What is surprising or interesting about this source?
  • What do I not understand in this source?

Analyze

  • How does the creator of the source convey information and make his/her/their point? (Is sarcasm used? Are there logical arguments? Is there emotional manipulation?)
  • How is the world described in the source different from my world? (What events were happening? What were common beliefs and opinions of certain population groups?)
  • How might people at this time have reacted to this source?

Evaluate

  • How does this source compare to other primary sources?
  • How does this source compare to related secondary sources?
  • What do you believe and disbelieve from this source?
  • What do you still not know, and where can you find that information?

Now that we’ve analyzed this primary source, we can use the information we’ve gathered in a paper or presentation – maybe in a project about propaganda used during the Cold War. Asking these questions helps us figure out what is going on in this source and what else we might need to know to understand the situation it refers to. Paired with other primary and secondary sources, this document provides valuable information about US opinions of the Soviet Union (or, at least, what the AFIS and DoD project as US opinions).

These steps and questions can be used with any primary source. Use them when doing your research to understand your sources and figure out what other questions you need to answer. Want more help analyzing and understanding primary sources? You can download our Primary Source Analysis handout or take at look at our “Research Using Primary Sources” tutorial. Need help finding primary and secondary sources to analyze? We’re always happy to help – just ask us! You can also check out our website (we recommend starting your research here).

Want to see more documents like this poster? Check out our United States Government Posters collection – digitized and available 24/7 for your convenience.

Make sure to keep following our blog – especially the #UMDStudy posts – for more information on different types of primary sources in Special Collections and how to analyze them!

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