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Reading: Primary Sources

How to Research: Know Your Sources

Questions to Ask of Primary Sources: 

  • What type of document is it? Who created it and why?

  • When was the document created? What physical details reveal this?

  • What was/is the purpose of the document?

  • What was the creator's situation or intention at the time of creation? What is the creator's relationship to the document? What evidence shows this?

  • Are there inconsistencies or ambiguities in the document? Does it make an argument? If so, is it supported or warranted? What makes it reliable or unreliable?

  • What does the document reveal about the period during which it was created?

  • What research questions could this primary source answer?

  • What else would you like to know about this document or its topic? How could you find the answers to those questions?

How Do I Evaluate a Primary Source?

image of a circle with the words Observe, Reflect, and Question surrounding it OBSERVE Identify and note details about the source: What do you notice first? Find something small but interesting. What do you notice that you didn’t expect? What do you notice that you can’t explain? What do you notice now that you didn’t earlier?

REFLECT  Generate and test hypotheses about the source. Where do you think this came from? · Why do you think somebody made this? · What do you think was happening when this was made? · Who do you think was the audience for this item? · What tool was used to create this? · Why do you think this item is important? · If someone made this today, what would be different? · What can you learn from examining this?

QUESTION  Ask questions that lead to more observations and reflections.What do you wonder about... who? · what? · when? · where? · why? · how? 

-From The Library of Congress, Analyzing Primary Sources Tool