How to Read a Primary Source

One of the key skills history students must learn is how to use primary sources. A primary source can be a document, artwork, artifact, or oral-history interview, just so long as it tells us something about the past and is as close as we can get to the past. Primary sources are those sources created by people who participated in an event, witnessed it firsthand, or at least heard about it from a credible witness.

Why read primary sources? Why read the letters of a Civil War soldier instead of just reading a recent book about the war? One answer is that no book is ever complete. A historian may offer a compelling interpretation of an event, but there is always more to learn. Another answer is that reading primary sources is training for other forms of critical inquiry. If more people had demanded the internal documents produced at Enron in the late 1990s, instead of just the executives’ misleading statements about what was going on, millions of consumers, investors, taxpayers and workers would be better off today.

Historians ask all manner of questions about primary sources. Here I have tried to group such questions into six larger categories, to suggest a means by which to approach an unfamiliar source. Keep in mind that answering these questions in order will not create an essay, but it may well produce a good set of notes for an essay.

1. What is the question?

Let us postulate that every primary source is created to fill a specific need. The first task of the historian is to determine that need. What question was the author trying to answer; what problem was she trying to solve? Sometimes the author will tell you explicitly. Drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" that the American people explain why they are declaring independence. Any advertisement is likely designed to persuade someone to buy a product or service. In other cases, the historian may need to make educated guesses. When an immigrant wrote home to his family, was he trying to persuade them to come join him, or was he emphasizing the hardship of his new life?

A source need not be made of words to suggest a question. A landscape painter may be asking, how does a railroad shape the American countryside? A census taker begins with a list of questions–how many people live in the household, what are their occupations, and so on. The historian can then ask, why did the Census Bureau decide those were the important questions, rather than others?

2. What is the answer?

Just as sources generally present some kind of question, they also present some kind of answer. Again, sometimes the source is explicit. A court decision or law is itself an answer to a question. Is it constitutional to segregate public schools by race? In its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court answered that question. Likewise, whatever problem is posed by an advertisement–sick children, unrequited love, ring around the collar–the suggested answer is always the same: buy our product. In other cases, the author may not have so precise an answer, but may only suggest a way of thought. A portrait, whether a painting or photograph, often suggests how the subject wishes to be perceived. He may not want the viewer to do anything specific, but to think about him in a certain way.

3. What is the style?

An author who has chosen a question and an answer must still decide how to express herself. Two people may agree that alcohol abuse is a problem and that temperance is the answer. But one may argue by citing the Bible, while the other argues using tables of statistics. The difference may suggest different world views of the two authors. Pay attention to whether the language is formal or informal. Does the author use only reasoned argument, or does she compare her opponents to animals? Is she trying to persuade people who disagree with her, or to rally people who already agree?

Keep an eye out for metaphors, especially those comparing human beings to animals. When your neighbor compares you to vermin, it’s time to move. For images, ask whether tthe image’s creator wanted to present as realistic a view as possible–showing how the scene actually appeared to her–or whether she was fitting the visual world into an established convention.

4. What is the context?

History is premised, in part, on the notion that any document can tell us something about the time and place in which it was produced, and, conversely, that time and place can help us understand the document. What was going on when the document was created? Was the nation at war or peace? Prosperous or impoverished? Was the author powerful or weak? Look for references to people and events.

5. What is missing?

Ask what the source is trying to hide, either by not mentioning it at all, passing over it quickly, or obscuring it in a footnote. Does the document contradict itself? Does it contradict something else the author wrote? Does it leave out information that would be important to the reader? Figuring out what the author does not want the reader to know is a good way to understand her true agenda. With images, something is always missing: the part of the scene outside the frame, and behind the painter or camera. What is it?

6. What is surprising?

These first five questions are all designed to lead you to ask the most important and most difficult question: what is surprising? That is, what did you learn from this document that you did not know before? Much of what you read may confirm what you already knew or could have guessed. Slaves opposed slavery. Clergymen promoted church attendance. No one liked paying taxes. All of that is important, but to write a compelling essay you will need to dig deeper, perhaps re-reading the source two or three times before you hit on something that does not fit. Isn’t it odd that veterans of the Revolutionary War later drank toasts to England to express their disgust with Jefferson? Or that Henry David Thoreau wrote a whole book about the Merrimack River that ignored the booming city of Lowell?1 Or that the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency portrayed alpha, beta, and gamma radiation as three sexy women?2

Figuring out what is surprising does take work. In some cases, careful reading of a single source can reveal surprising contradictions. Alternatively, what is surprising is a break in a pattern established by other primary and secondary sources. It”s like a game of duck-duck-goose; the cry of Goose! is surprising only because of all the ducks that came before it. As you read a source, think hard about whether it is a duck or a goose.

Once you have found something odd in a primary source, you have a question: why is that oddness there? And once you have a question, you can answer it with a thesis statement.

For examples of how historians have found surprises, see "Examples of Critical Reading" and "Image Analysis."

1Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

2Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: BasicBooks, 1988), 110.