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Reading Primary and Secondary Documents

Throughout this course, we will be reading from two vastly different kinds of writing as we study history. Historians’ names for these two types of writing are primary sources and secondary sources. It is important for you to develop different techniques for reading and learning from these two distinct kinds of materials.

Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are versions of past events written by someone looking back at a given event or period who relies on the accounts of others, people who experienced the event firsthand. History textbooks are examples of secondary sources.

The most important thing you should remember when reading secondary sources is that they represent only one interpretation of a given event from someone who wasn’t even there. Therefore, a secondary source represents “the solid facts” or “the real truth” about a past event as interpreted by its author(s).

Questions Historians Ask of Secondary Sources

  • Who wrote this? When? Why?
  • Does the author take a definite point of view here? What are the author’s biases? In other words, which points of view, realities about the author’s identity and place in time (race, sex, background, class, etc.) have influenced this author’s take on history, and how do these influencing factors affect the final work?
  • How would various groups of people who experienced what the author describes feel about this depiction? Would they feel it validated their experiences? Would they even recognize the author’s description? Would they agree with the author’s attitudes and judgments?

Primary Sources
Unlike secondary sources, primary sources come to us directly from the past. Primary sources are one kind of “artifact” from a given period of history that historians use. An artifact is anything that historians study to try to learn about the past. A building can be an artifact, as can a kitchen tool from three hundred years ago, as can an old photograph or painting, as can a diary or letter.

When artifacts are in written form, historians call them primary sources because they provide opportunities to learn about the past “firsthand” in the words of people who were there. Like a newspaper report or news broadcast today, primary sources give us eyewitness accounts of the past, instead of giving us the news secondhand through a historian who has studied the period and added her/his own interpretation to its events.

Questions Historians Ask of Primary Sources

  • What kind of document is it? Different kinds of sources will tell you different things. For instance, a law code provides a very different perspective on a society than a person’s diary. What kind of information can you get from the kind of document you are reading?
  • Who wrote it? The authorship of a document also affects the information you get from it. For instance, General Patton’s diary and the diary of a London homemaker during the Blitz would each provide very different information on World War II. Who is the author? What was his or her position in society – their class, race, gender? What kinds of information would this person have access to? These are important questions even if you don’t know who the author of a source is. If your source is anonymous, you need to guess the answers to these kinds of questions from the information the source provides.
  • Why was it written? What is the document’s purpose? Is it trying to persuade the reader of something? Does it simply list information? Does the author intend that other people will see the document? For instance, Patton’s personal diary serves a different purpose than his official log of duty, and each would tell you different things. How does the document’s purpose affect your belief in what it says?
  • Who was it written for? This is similar to why the document was written, but documents with the same purpose might have very different audiences. Is it written for the rich? The poor? The government? A mass-media audience? How do you think the intended audience affects what information the document presents and how it presents it?
  • What does the source talk about? This is the basic information that the source tells you. It shows you what concerned the author. What does the author tell you about his or her society?
  • What does the source not talk about? This is just as important as what the source tells you. What the source doesn’t reveal shows the limitations of the source and exposes its particular biases. Does the source talk about the entire society or focus on a particular segment? Who does it not talk about – what kinds of things or people does it ignore? What information can you not draw from this source?