Interpreting Primary Sources


Historians’ work often resembles that of detectives; historians have to place themselves in the minds of those whom they study, understanding their motivations, patterns of thought, and goals. Historians follow certain “clues,” interpreting them in order to paint a fuller picture of past persons and events. For historians, the best “clues” are primary sources—original first-hand accounts of the past. A primary source can come in many forms: letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, videos, official government documents, and many more.



1. What type of document is this?

In gathering what sort of source you are confronting, consider the most basic investigative questions.

  • Who? Who produced this source? Are his or her name and title included? What relationship did the author have to the basic questions you are investigating? For whom was the source produced (i.e., Who was the intended audience?)
  • What? What type of source are you facing? Is it, for instance, a diary meant to be seen only by one person; a letter meant to be seen by a few people; or a newspaper meant to be seen by many people?
  • Where? Where was the source produced, and what were the circumstances in that setting? For instance, was the source a letter hastily written in a warzone; was it a letter written in the comfort of a peaceful town?
  • When? Are the date (and even time) of production featured anywhere on the source? What other major events happened near that time? Is the source a reaction to a historical event?
  • Why? Why was the source produced? What did the author hope to achieve in producing the source? 

2. What are the contents of the source?

  • What is the source about?
  • How does understanding what type of document this is help you to understand its contents more fully?
  • What is the author’s agenda? Is he or she trying to persuade the audience?
  • What is the author’s bias? How does understanding that bias help me to interpret the contents of the source?
  • Is there figurative language, sarcasm, exaggeration, hyperbole that you should try to understand?


3. What conclusions can you draw about this source?

  • How can the contents of this source help you to answer the larger historical question you are considering?


4. Now that you have seen this source, what other sources should you look for?

  • Does the author of the source refer to other items you now should try to find?
  • Do you need to return a textbook or other secondary source to understand a new dimension of your investigation?