Skip to Main Content

History - United States History: Read Primary Sources

Sample primary source analysis matrix

What are Primary Documents?

Primary Documents were either created during the time period being studied or were created by a participant in the events at a later date, as in the case of memoirs.  Primary sources reflect the personal viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable a researcher to get as close as possible to what actually took place during a certain time period or an historical event.

Types of Primary Documents:

  • Books
  • Photographs and images
  • Magazine and Newspaper Articles
  • Cartoons and Advertisements
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Movies, Videos, DVDs, music
  • Autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Public Opinion Polls
  • Census records
  • Codes of law
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Maps
  • Research Data and Statistics
  • Documents produced by organizations
  • Documents produced by Government agencies, for example, congressional hearings and census records

How to Read Primary Sources

Anything written in the past can constitute an historical document whether it is a letter, diary, shopping list, memo, speech, advertisement, newspaper article, newscast, charter, act of congress, bill of sale or hospital record. When examining these documents, understanding the context in which they were written is vital to proper interpretation. Some important considerations include:

Creator: Who wrote the document?

An individual: What was the creator’s name, position (office, title), social class, gender, education, nationality or ethnicity, religion, political leanings, organizational affiliations and anything else that might "explain" him or her?

A group (e.g., a political body, government body, health, environmental or commercial organization or other type of organization): What was the composition of the group? What was its purpose? What ideas did the group support? If the item was written by committee, it implies that the body made revisions and amendments before it was completed. Such authorship suggests a wide degree of support and probably more than one compromise between those wanting either stronger or weaker statements. Are earlier drafts available? If so, what can you glean from their evolution?

What is the purpose of the document?

Everything is written for a reason. Is the document's purpose to provide information? To provide a record (as with a bill of sale, for example)? To convince the audience to act a certain way or believe a certain idea? To spur conversation? To motivate? To persuade? To entertain? Does the creator have an agenda? An "axe to grind?" What is at stake for the creator of this document? Most importantly, what evidence in the document provides clues to its purpose? Does the creator explicitly state their purpose? Is that statement of purpose reliable? How does the creator support his/her argument? With logic? With evidence? With emotional appeals? Does the creator acknowledge differing viewpoints? Would it be appropriate to acknowledge differing viewpoints? (Maybe not, in the case of advertisements, for example).

When and where was the document written?

When a document was written is significant for numerous reasons. Reading texts written both before and after a significant historical event may reveal changing attitudes. Texts composed close in time to the event described are often the most valuable. For example, letters or newspaper articles written soon after an important event contain clear memories of the event. Memoirs, in contrast, are written later in life when memories may be fading and/or when the creator may be seeking to portray their actions in a more positive light. On the other hand, sometimes the intervening years offered opportunity for reflection and insight.

Where a text was written may not always be relevant, but it might suggest something about the creator’s perspective and potential biases. For example, a 1950s treatise about Communism written in the Soviet Union may have a very different agenda or political viewpoint from one written in the United States during the same era.

Who was the document's intended audience?

Is the intended audience the creator himself or herself (e.g., private diary), one other person (e.g., a private letter), a particular group (e.g., an organizational newsletter), or the general public (e.g., a speech, a government report, a letter to the newspaper, or a book)? Or, is the text addressed to more than one audience? For example, a private letter to an individual that the creator knows may eventually be made public or a report for one person that the creator expects to be passed on to others in an organization. Was the creator speaking/writing to convey his/her own thoughts or to represent a particular person or group? Finally, consider if the creator is writing with the intent of silencing/stifling a particular audience.

How do you know the intended audience? What clues to the intended audience exist in the text? In some cases, diaries, letters or speeches, for example, the intended audience may be clear. In other texts, newspaper articles, cartoons or interviews, for example, it might be necessary to read closely for clues to identify the intended audience.

The relationship between the creator and audience will tell what to expect from the document, such as the creator's use of language and the amount of knowledge that the creator assumes the audience has.

Finally, how was the document received by its intended audience or by other audiences? By what standards can one measure a document's significance? Was it widely disseminated and read (e.g., a pamphlet)? Was it more personal (e.g., a diary-though some authors intended their diaries to be published)? Did the document's publication have anticipated and unanticipated consequences?

What is the document's form or medium of dissemination?

Examples of historical forms or mediums of dissemination include biographies, captivity and travel narratives, poems, petitions, newspapers, popular songs, speeches, laws, government records, films, audio recordings and pamphlets. The form in which information is disseminated is always carefully chosen. Forms have their own conventions, which fulfill the expectations of author and audience. Deviations or innovations in form can be of particular interest and importance.

What is the document's content or message?

What is its storyline? What are the main characters, events, ideas and argument?

What does the language used in the document tell us?

What can you tell about a historical period from the language, vocabulary, and rhetoric used? What does the creator's choice of words tell us about social or cultural assumptions? How have the meanings of the words changed over time?

Is it a translation? If so, who translated it? Could the translator have used certain words that might have changed the meaning of the original document? Does it seem likely that the translation an accurate depiction of what the author intended? What role might the translator have played in shaping the document's tone or content?

Does the language in the document demonstrate bias?

What presuppositions or biases should we be aware of?

How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of our age? What presumptions and preconceptions do you as a reader bring to bear on this text? For instance, what portions of the text might you find objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable? How might the difference between modern values and the values of the creator influence the way you understand the text?

Is this document authentic?

Are there reasons to doubt the authorship of the document? Was the document possibly a forgery? Has it been altered in any way? If it is a transcription of someone else's words, who was the scribe? What role might the scribe have played in shaping the document's tone or content?

Is this document reliable?

Reliability refers to the consistency of the creator's account of the truth. A reliable text displays a pattern of verifiable truth-telling that tends to make the reader trust that any unverifiable portion of the text is also true. When reading a document, we ask: Does the information in this source support or contradict information from other primary sources associated with this event or individual? When reading multiple primary sources, we ask: What patterns or ideas are repeated throughout the multiple sources? What major differences appear in them? Does this source exclude, downplay, or ignore evidence or issues that you can verify through other sources?

Is the creator credible?

Credibility refers to our ability to trust the creator's account of the truth based on everything we've considered so far: his/her background, purpose for writing the document, audience, language and reliability. A creator who is inconsistently truthful loses credibility. An creator with an agenda that employs vehement and racist attacks against an enemy loses credibility.

It is important to remember that no creator of historical documents is entirely neutral. Moreover, a creator who seems quite credible may be utterly unreliable. The creator who takes a measured, reasoned tone and anticipates counter-arguments may seem to be very credible, when in fact he presents us with complete fiction. Similarly, a reliable creator may not always seem credible, given the different presuppositions of modern vs. contemporary thinking. We should also remember that individual texts themselves may have portions that are more reliable and credible than other portions of the same document.

What does this document mean to me?

What can you learn from this document? What can I know of the past based on this material? How can I be sure about it? What evidence, specifically, does this document provide about the past?