Section III: How to Read Primary Sources

Students in all history courses at St. Albans will read primary sources. Many of your courses will provide a supplementary reader which consists primarily of historical documents. You should know how to approach the reading of primary sources. All history students should learn to use the analytical skills outlined below. The process may seem difficult at first, but you will gain confidence and accuracy as you practice. In advanced course-work, students will be expected to analyze a series of documents that will help them answer historical questions.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is the material that provides the raw data for the historian. It is work that was composed, collected, printed, or published contemporary or nearly contemporary with the time period being studied. Written documents such as letters, speeches, diary entries, newspapers, and government records are examples of primary sources. Works of art, photographs, films, cartoons, novels, buildings, maps, folk tales, and music can also be primary sources.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources are the works that provide explanations of, or judgments about, the primary material or historical events. Secondary sources are generally written after the time of the event with which they are concerned and contain interpretations of the primary sources. They may differ from other interpretations concerning the same event and using the same primary sources.

Historical Context

Consider what Claude Bélanger of Marianopolis College has to say about context:

What does your Instructor mean when in an exam, a paper, or in a document analysis, you are asked to put an event/issue/document in its historical context?

Many students confuse the context with the causes of an event. A cause is something that brings an effect. The effect may be immediate and obvious, or it may be deeper and not so evident. In all cases, however, it generates a consequence that one can clearly relate to the factor that precipitated the action.

By contrast, the context is understood as the events, or the climate of opinion, that surround the issue at hand. They help to understand its urgency, its importance, its shape, or even its timing. What was happening at the time of the event or the decision that sheds some light on it? In what type of society did the event occur? An urban one? A rich one? An educated one? An unstable one?

What is the Difference of Fact, Inference, and Opinion?


A fact is a statement that is commonly accepted as true and is generally verifiable by sources. Despite what pot-modernists may say, facts form the backbone of history, the raw materials of the historian; they are the necessary condition of the historian’s work. For example, ‘George Washington was the first president of the United States.’ Given a hundred facts, no two historians will see exactly the same relationships among and between them, but the facts remain. It used to be said that ‘facts speak for themselves,’ but really facts only speak when the historian draws upon them.[1]


An inference is a conclusion or judgment stating relationships between facts and is derived from the logical consideration of those facts. An inference is only true to the extent that the facts upon which it is based are true, and to the extent to which it takes account of all known facts on the subject. An inference is also a personal judgment (interpretation) about the facts that is strong or weak depending upon the skill and knowledge of the historian who presents it. For example, ‘George Washington was one of our most important presidents because he effectively delimited the powers of the presidency and established an independent judiciary.’


An opinion is a personal and individual conclusion, similar to an inference, but WITHOUT supporting facts.  For example, ‘George Washington was a great president.’ You may well have your reasons for describing George Washington as great, but greatness is highly subjective and difficult to pin down without providing some specific criteria of evaluation.

* Inferences and opinions should NEVER be confused for facts. The student of history must evaluate historical inferences/arguments/theories/hypothesis in light of the factual evidence. A sound historian always re-evaluates his positions; as he accumulates more and more facts, and reads the arguments put forth by others, the competent historian will rework his own conclusions. You should never hesitate to change your opinion of an event after discovering new facts.

Question Your Sources

When evaluating your documents, you will need to do some difficult thinking. Not all texts are equal or representative of historical reality (whatever that may be), and some may be downright fabrications. Primary sources, of course, may also contain inferences and opinions, so they must be handled with care. The following steps should be followed when reading and analyzing a primary source:

  1. Who wrote this document? Who is the author and what is his or her place in society? What relationship does this person have to the event about which he writes? What is this person’s occupation? Is this a peasant? A president? A factory-worker? Male or female? From what perspective does this person witness the events described in the document? Was he, for example, a member of the Continental Congress in 1776 or a member of the Philadelphia lamp-lighters’ association? Was he a young or old man when he wrote? Does this perspective limit the value of the person’s insights? Does the author have an obvious bias or conflict of interest simply by the fact of who he or she is? (For example, we may expect the writings of an economist of the former Soviet Union to have a built in bias for Communism.)
  2. When was the document written? Start by looking at the date it was created. What is the historical context of the document? HISTORICAL CONTEXT — that is the political, social, cultural, and economic setting of an event (including the creation of a document) – is one of the essential concepts for the study of history. The historical context of a document tells us a great deal about how we should approach the information. Was the document written before or after the French Revolution, for example? Was it written during the optimism of the Roaring Twenties or the despair of the Great Depression? Was it written during the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment? How do the values and presumptions of the author differ from or own and how might that influence the content of the document?
  3. Who is the author’s intended audience? Who exactly did the author intend to be the reader of this document? Diary entries, for example, are rather different from letters sent home to your parents from college. Scholarly articles for publication are written differently than court records. Who might be the indirect audience of this document? For example, the president addresses the US Congress in his State of the Union Address, but the speech is now also directed to the entire nation. How does the intended audience shape the content or tone of the document?
  4. What does the document say? What is the central point of the document? What precisely does the author wish to convey in his or her writing? Does the author have a thesis? What — in one sentence — is that thesis? You should be able to identify passages in which the author makes the most important points. Does the author make a persuasive argument? Be an active reader and underline passages, write comments and questions on the document. What insights did you gain into the historical period under investigation by reading the document?
  5. What does the document mean? Analyzing primary sources requires you to make sense of it all and often read between the lines to identify concerns that aren’t always made explicit. Documents can tell us much about the society that produced them, but we must make an effort to think critically about the text. This means that proper close reading entails thought beyond simply reading. What can we learn from this text beyond what the author wished to tell us? What does the author imply in the text? What insights does he provide about his society? Use imagination and logic. Apply what you do know about the period and the author and attempt to make some statement about the meaning of the document. How does the information from this document help answer the focus questions presented in the unit of study? Does this document support or contradict other documents or secondary interpretations on the subject in question? When you relate the content of this document to others, what larger historical picture or story emerges? What patterns emerge when you group this document with others?
  6. How reliable is this source? Reliability refers to our ability to trust the consistency of the author’s account of the truth. Can we trust what the author says? Reliable texts display patterns of verifiable truths. An author who is inconsistently truthful loses credibility. Evaluating truth, however, can be tricky since there are all sorts of reasons that a person may add or delete information in his document. Take, for example, a high-ranking German administrator who worked for Hitler who writes his memoirs later in life, a credible source to be sure on the Nazi High Command. However, during Word War II this man committed atrocities against civilians though he fails to mention this in his memoirs and actively covers up his involvement in the Holocaust by blaming others. Knowing his possible motive for altering information, we would be correct to question the veracity of his account. However, on many other issues, this high-ranking German official might prove utterly reliable; the only gap in his reliability may be in the omission of details about the atrocities he committed. Corroborating information is vitally important to the serious historian. You should always approach sources with a certain amount of skepticism and check that your sources accurately reflect reality. Can you verify the author’s claims as facts? An author such as our German administrator above, who seems quite credible, may be utterly unreliable.

Section IV: How to Examine Visual Sources

All students at St. Albans will analyze visual sources in history courses. It is a skill that you can practice outside of class by examining cartoons in newspapers and magazines or taking the time to think twice about almost any image included in every aspect of media. The following steps for analyzing visual sources such as a painting or cartoon are similar to those for analyzing textual sources.

  1. Who created the work? Was the work created by an individual or does it represent the view of a larger group (a cartoon in a Socialist newspaper, for example)?
  2. When was the work produced? As with all documents, this is quite important since it gives the historian valuable insight into work. A Japanese cartoon, for example, that extolled the virtues of militarism would be much more rare and curious had it been produced in 1946 rather than in 1936. And a cartoon lampooning the king of France might have sparked outrage in 1785 where it would have barely raised an eyebrow in 1795. What, then, was the historical context in which this work was produced?
  3. What do you see? First try to identify and list all of the different people, objects, or words that you see. Record any dates or number that appear. What issues are conveyed in text? Is there a caption; if so, what does it mean? Artists (especially political cartoonists) have a limited space to work with and consciously choose what objects to include in their compositions. They often attempt to convey messages by using conventional symbols, numbers, and stock images. Therefore, in order to interpret the work, you much take notice of such things. The number 1776, for example, is a reference to American Independence; donkeys, as you know, have come to symbolize Democrats and elephants, likewise, Republicans; a blindfolded woman in a toga carrying a hand-scale symbolizes justice. What emotions are portrayed in the work? (Is the Democratic donkey gleeful or embarrassed? Is lady Justice crying?) You must use all of the data provided by the artist to inform your interpretation.
  4. Who is the intended audience for the work? Where did the work appear? Was it published? In which newspaper or magazine?
  5. What does it mean? What do you think each of the symbols means? Why were they included in the work? How do the words help clarify the meaning or the work? Use historical knowledge and logic to interpret the work as a whole. How does this work provide insight into the political, social, cultural, intellectual, economic, or religious climate of its day? Try to explain the meaning in a brief statement.


[1] See Edward Hallett Carr, What is History?(1961).

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