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Primary sources can offer first-hand evidence that supports your research and helps you identify questions to delve into it.

A primary source is a piece of information about an event or historical period that was created at the same time as the event itself. Its purpose is to capture the words, thoughts, and feelings of the past. Primary sources help you understand what happened and why it happened.

Primary sources are not just books. They can be any written document or actual elements created during a historical period. Some examples are

Letters

Journal entries

Maps

Official records, such as birth certificates or marriage licenses

Personal items, such as clothing, tools, or coins

Primary Sources vs Secondary Sources

It can be difficult to identify a primary and a secondary source. Most people experience it often, especially when writing research papers, assignments, or journal articles. Finding the right source is the most important factor when it comes to citing information from different sources. So how can a writer determine which source is best for a particular project? Distinguishing between secondary and primary sources should not be a problem for the reader after having reviewed the following points.

Primary sources

These are materials that have not been interpreted by someone else. Thus, they are original documents or works created at or near the time of an event. Primary sources provide first-hand accounts of experiences or events. Information is usually presented in its original form, whether it is a work of literature or art, or an account of an event or experience, or original documents or research products such as interviews, speeches, questionnaires, letters, diaries, manuscripts, memoirs, etc. It includes books, periodicals, and websites.

Primary fuentas can be searched using the following techniques:

Online and printed search through the catalog of the Libraries.

Through the library databases.

Free primary sources on the Internet.

Through search engines such as WorldCat.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources provide second-hand accounts of events. These sources include materials that have been reported, analyzed, or interpreted by individuals who have no first-hand knowledge of an event and can be found in books or periodicals, or on websites.

Reading Primary Sources

A good read is about asking questions of the sources. Even if you can’t answer the questions, reading primary sources requires you to use your “historical imagination.”

To help you analyze the primary sources you can use the PAPER method:

Purpose

Argument

Budgets and values

Evaluate the content of truth

Relate to other sources

You can use the list of questions below as a checklist to help you evaluate your primary sources.

Purpose

Who is the author? What is their place in society?

Why did you prepare this document? What is at stake for the author?

Do you have a thesis? What does it consist of?

Argument

What does the text intend? How do you try to achieve this?

Who is it for? How can this affect the author’s strategy?

Is the author credible and reliable?

Budgets and values

How do ideas and values differ from the source of the values of our time?

What preconceptions do readers bring to the text?

How can differences in values influence the way we understand the text?

Evaluate the content of truth

How could this text support the arguments you’ve read in other secondary sources?

What unintended information does the text reveal?

Which parts of the text are interpretations of the author? What are historical “facts”?

Relate to other sources

Compared to other sources, what ideas are repeated in them?

What are the main differences?

Which is more reliable and credible?

Analyzing a Primary Source

To analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself and the time from which it comes. You can base your information about the time on the readings you do in class and at the lectures. On your own, you have to think about the document itself. The following questions may be helpful when you start analyzing sources:

Observe the physical nature of the source

This is especially important and powerful if it is an original source (i.e. an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper with elegant handwriting, or on waste paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?

Think about the purpose of the source

What was the author’s message or argument? What did he intend to convey? Is the message explicit or are there also implicit messages?

How does the author try to convey the message? What methods do you use?

What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?

Who were the recipients? Was this fountain intended for a person’s eyes or the general public? How does this affect the source?

What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell us? How does language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author’s choice of words tell you? And the silences? What does the author decide NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical proof

Is it prescriptive – it says what people thought should happen – or descriptive – it says what people thought was happening?

Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?

Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite or “ordinary” people? From whose perspective?

What historical questions can be answered with this source? What are the advantages of using this type of font?

If we have read other historians’ interpretations of this source or sources like this, how does your analysis fit in with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge your argument?

What questions can this source NOT answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?

The HIPPOS Method

After reading a source, we re-examine it through this handful of lenses. Here are the fundamentals of HIPPOS:

Historical Context

What developments have already occurred? What events have not yet occurred?

Target Audience

Who is the source for?

Point of View

What adjectives can be used to describe it?

Purpose

What do you intend to achieve with this source?

External Information

What are the crucial data that needs to be known to better understand this source?

So what? (So What)

How do all these things fit together to connect the source with historical events in one consolidated sentence?

Additional Concepts for Analyzing Primary Sources

Here are some additional concepts that will help you evaluate texts from primary sources:

Texts and documents, authors and creators

You’ll see these phrases often. I use the first two and the last two as synonyms. Texts are historical documents, authors their creators, and vice versa. “Texts” and “authors” are often used when talking about literature, while “documents” and “creators” are more familiar to historians.

Evaluate the veracity of the texts

For the rest of the discussion, consider the example of a soldier who committed atrocities against noncombatants during the war. Later in his life, he writes a memoir in which he does not mention his role in those atrocities and, in fact, can blame them on someone else. Knowing the soldier’s possible motive, we would do well to question the veracity of his account.

Credible vs. Reliable Text

Reliability refers to our ability to rely on the coherence of the author’s account of truth. Reliable text shows a verifiable truth-telling pattern that tends to make unverifiable parts of the text true. For example, the soldier mentioned above can be totally reliable by detailing the campaigns in which he participated during the war, as evidenced by the corroborating records. The only gap in his reliability may be the omission of details about the atrocities he committed.

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Credibility refers to our ability to trust the author’s account of truth on the basis of its tone and reliability. An author who is not consistent with the truth, such as the soldier in the previous example, loses credibility. There are many other ways in which authors undermine their credibility. Most often, they convey in their tone that they are not neutral (see below). For example, the previous soldier may intersperse throughout his reliable account of the details of the campaign vehement and racist attacks against his former enemy. Such attacks signal to readers that they may have an interest in not portraying the past accurately and can therefore undermine their credibility, regardless of their reliability.

An author who seems quite credible can be totally unreliable. The author who adopts a measured and reasoned tone and anticipates counterarguments may seem very believable, when in fact he presents us with a complete fiction. Similarly, a reliable author may not always seem credible. It should also be made clear that the texts themselves may have more reliable and credible parts than others.

Neutral text

We often wonder if the author of a text has a “grinding axe” that can make his words unreliable.

Neutrality refers to the interest an author has in a text. In the example of the soldier who committed wartime atrocities, the author seems to have had a considerable interest in his memoirs, which was to erase his own guilt. In a totally neutral document, the creator is not aware that he has a special interest in the construction and content of the document.

No text is completely neutral. In general, people do not take the trouble to record their thoughts unless they have a purpose or design that makes them involved in the process of creating the text. Some historical texts, such as birth records, may seem more neutral than others, because their creators seem to have had less interest in creating them. (For example, the county clerk who signed several thousand birth certificates probably had less interest in creating an individual birth certificate than a celebrity who records his life in a journal for future publication as memoirs.) Sometimes the author’s interest is the most interesting part of a document.

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You may also be interested in: Research Protocol

Bibliographic References

Patrick Rael, “Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students,” (Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 2004). www.bowdoin.edu/writing-guides/

University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, “Conducting research work – Citing your sources / Avoiding plagiarism”. In: https://bibliotheque.uqac.ca/c.php?g=676692&p=4768439

Article Compilatio, “Why is plagiarism prohibited? What are my incentives to respect copyright?” In: https://www.compilatio.net/en/blog/my-reasons-to-respect-copyright

You might also be interested in: Projective Research Techniques

Analyzing Primary Sources

Analyzing Primary Sources. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Alexis Brown @alexisrbrown

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