READING a PRIMARY SOURCE
Primary Sources do not speak for themselves, they have to be interpreted.
That is, we can't always immediately understand what a primary source means,
especially if it is from a culture significantly different from our own. It is
therefore necessary to try to understand what it means and to figure out what
the source can tell us about the past.
To help you interpret primary sources, you should think about these questions
as you examine the source:
A. Place the source in its historical context.
- Who wrote it? What do you know about the author?
- Where and when was it written?
- Why was it written?
- To what audience is it addressed? What do you know about this audience?
B. Classify the source.
- What kind of work is it?
- What was its purpose?
- What are the important conventions and traditions governing this kind
of source? Of what legal, political, religious or philosophical traditions is
it a part?
C. Understand the source.
- What are the key words in the source and what do they mean?
- What point is the author trying to make? Summarize the thesis.
- What evidence does the author give to support the thesis?
- What assumptions underlay the argument?
- What values does the source reflect?
- What problems does it address? Can you relate these problems to the
- What action does the author expect as a result of this work? Who is to
take this action? How does the source motivate that action?
- What is the subtext? Read the silences; in other words, what is not
being said? Why not? Whose voice is missing? Why is it left out of this
D. Evaluate the source as a source of historical information.
- How typical is this source for this period?
- How widely was this source circulated?
- What problems, assumptions, arguments, ideas and values, if any, does
it share with other sources from this period?
- What other evidence can you find to corroborate your conclusions?