What is a Primary Source
Primary sources are produced usually by a participant or observer at the time an event or development took place (or even at a later date). Primary sources include manuscripts such as letters, diaries, journals, memos. Newspapers, memoirs, and autobiographies also might function as primary sources. Nonwritten primary sources might be taped interviews, films and videotapes, photographs, furniture, cards, tools, weapons, houses and other artifacts.
Evaluation of a Primary Source
To read primary sources effectively requires you to use your historical imagination along with your research skills. You must be willing and able to ask questions, imagine possible answers, find factual background data, and craft an analytical response. To evaluate primary sources, explore the following parts of the text or artifact by following these steps:
1) Author and Audience:
Who wrote the text (or created the artifact) and what is the author/creator's place in society? If the person is not well known, try to get clues from the text/artifact itself.
Why do you think the author wrote it? How "neutral" is the text; how much does the author have a stake in you reading it, i.e., does the author have an "ax to grind" which might render the text unreliable? What evidence (in the text or artifact) tells you this? People generally do not go to the trouble to record their thoughts unless they have a purpose or design; and the credible author acknowledges and expresses those values or biases so that they may be accounted for in the text.
What is the intended audience of the text or artifact? How does the text reveal the targetted audience?
What is the author's thesis? How does the creator construct the artifact? What is the strategy for accomplishing a particular goal? Do you think the strategy is effective for the intended audience? Cite specific examples.
What arguments or concerns does the author imply that are not clearly stated? Explain what you think this position may be and why you think it.
3) Frame of Reference:
How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of our age? Give specific examples of differences between your frame of reference and that of the author or creator -- either as an individual or as a member of a cultural group.
What assumptions do we as readers bring to bear on this text? See if you can find portions of the text which we might find objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable.
4) Evaluating Truth Content:
How might this text support one of the arguments found in a historical secondary source? Choose a paragraph anywhere in a secondary source you've read, state where this text might be an appropriate footnote (give a full citation), and explain why.
Offer one example of a historical "fact" (something that is indisputable or generally acknowledged as true) that we can learn from this text (this need not be the author's exact words).
5) Relation to Other Sources:
Compare and contrast the source with another primary source from the same time period. What major similarities? What major differences appear in them?
Which do you find more reliable and credible? Reliability refers to the consistency of the author's account of the truth. A reliable text displays a pattern of verifiable truth-telling that tends to make the reader trust that the rest of the text is true also. Your task as a historian is to make and justify decisions about the relative veracity of historical texts and portions of them.