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Conducting research

How to read a primary source

Consider these things when you are reading a primary source.  They will help you determine the usefulness of that particular source as well as provide insight into the types of sources that you might find helpful.

1.  Basic Identification

            a.  What type of source is it?  Newspaper, article, map, letter, film, etc.

            b.  When and where was it created?

            c.  Who created it?

2.  Author’s intent

            a.  What is the author’s place in society?  This includes profession, status, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.  How might these factors shape the author’s perspective in this source?

            b.  Why do you think the author created this source?

            c.  Who is the intended audience for this source?

            d.  How might the intended audience shape the perspective of this source?

3.  Historical context

            a.  Under what specific historical circumstances was this source created?

            b.  What larger historical events, processes, or structures might have influenced this source?

           c.  Is this source consistent with what you know about the historical record from that time?  Why or why not?

4.  Content of the source

            a.  What historical facts do you learn from this source?

            b.  What biases or other cultural factors might have shaped the content?

            c.  What historical perspectives or questions are left unanswered?

            d.  Does this document provide a balanced view of the society from which it originated?

            e.  Considering all of the above, is it a reliable source?

            f.  Does it serve a purpose in your work?

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