How do I analyse primary sources?

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Analysing primary sources is one of the most important and interesting parts of studying history as they give you an insight into the topic you are studying through the voice/s of contemporaries who experienced the period.  

A primary source can be anything which survives from the past: a written document; a painting; a monument; a film; or even the landscape.

When analysing a primary source it is firstly important to consider the background of the source:

·         What is this source? (A diary/ letter/ painting/ statue/ court case/ etc.)

·         Who produced/ wrote this document?

·         When was this document written?

·         Where was this document written (Not always relevant.)  

·         Who is the target audience/ whose voice is this source representing?
 

Once you have considered the background of the source, the content of the document can be analysed:

·         What does the document show?

·         What themes/ arguments are most important and why?

·         What light does the content shed on wider issues/ people/ events of the time?

·         What can this source implicitly reveal through reading between the lines?

·         Consider the appearance (especially when working with an original source): What does the document look like? Why is the information presented in a certain way? How much skill has gone into producing the document? Can the handwriting indicate anything about the author?  
 

By analysing the background and content of the source, you are able to begin to build up a picture of the author’s thought worlds. However, primary sources are never that simple to unravel, and often present a subjective view, even unconsciously. Before drawing any firm conclusions, historians have to carefully evaluate the information provided and consider the wider context in which this source was written.
Some questions to ask are:

·         What you know about the author, and does this affect how they may be presenting events? E.g. are they a Catholic writing during the time of the Protestant Reformation?

·         What does their rhetoric (language and word choice) tell you?

·         Are the views/information in this source confirmed in other sources, how and why?

·         Does the information in this source fit with what you know about the period, how and why?

·         Does the source present individual/ local/ national events? How does this affect how representative it is?  

·         What is NOT mentioned by the author, and why?

·         What types of information does this source not give you? What are the limitations of using this type of source?

Sources are often used to answer a specific question. By considering all aspects of your analysis as one you will be able to offer a carefully evaluated response! 

Catharine K. A Level History tutor, GCSE History tutor, GCSE English ...

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is an online A Level History tutor with MyTutor studying at Exeter University

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