Strategies for Interpreting Primary Documents

The great advantage of reading primary documents is being able to see the past through the eyes of different kinds of people who lived through the experience. This vantage point will enable you to begin formulating your own interpretation of history. Instead of passively absorbing an historian's interpretation of the past in a history book, you yourself become the historian.

However, one of the perils in reading primary documents is that each such document amounts to only a very specific experience of the past, which is why historians scan many documents in order to find broader patterns that might explain what happened in the past. In reading any one primary document, therefore, it is important to pinpoint the specific perspective of the document's author, in order to determine both the extent and the limits to what that particular author and that particular document can reveal about the past. As you read a primary document, keep in mind the following questions:

1. What is the author's point of view? What category of person is the author? In other words, what sex? What class? What race? Also, what group of people does the author belong to? For instance, what occupation? What religion? Does the author explicitly state any kind of identity, or is that identity implicitly assumed? Which parts of the author's identity are revealed, and which not?

2. What is the author's agenda? What is the author trying to describe? What is the author hoping to accomplish? Is the author striving for positive changes, or worried about negative changes? Is the author focusing on realities -- the way they believe matters are in real life? Or on ideals -- the way they believe matters should be in theory?

3. Who is included in the author's agenda, and who is excluded? Is the author concerned with their own category of person or group of people, or with another category or group? Who does the author imagine is responsible for positive changes? Who is responsible for negative changes? Who seems to hold power? Who seems not to? What kinds of power are under contest?

You will be expected to use primary sources as evidence for most course assignments. To do so effectively, you will need to incorporate the following basic information about each source into your answers:

    1. Is the source primary or secondary?           
    2. To what events does the document refer?  When did the event(s) happen?
    3. Who is/are the main actor(s)?
    4. Who recorded the documents, and why?
    5. Who was the intended audience?

 

Adapted, with permission, from resource by Prof. Konstantin Dierks