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Topic: What is a Primary Source? — Conducting a Document Analysis

Historical Research is about making discoveries

Document analysis allows for active learning of the documents. Examining the documents and making inquiries allows for deeper revelations about them. 


  • Each document holds a lot more information than is assumed at first glance. By looking deeply at a document, asking questions, and making observations, you can mine an enormous amount of information to make historical discoveries.
  • Historians are detectives searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved. Each primary source is a piece to a puzzle.
  • Historical thinking involves learning how to approach sources, criticize assertions, corroborate evidence, examine the intent of the author/creator, consider the audience, observe artifactual clues and contextualize documents.
  • Primary sources are not neutral; primary sources have a point of view; primary sources may not give an accurate account of a historical moment or trend. They make us realize that all accounts of the past are subjective. They are subjective at the time they occurred as well as to us studying about them.

Tips for a Document Analysis

Don’t approach a document asking “What am I looking for?”  Approach it asking “what are you telling me?”


  • Primary sources don’t “tell you who they are.”  Books do – the title page tells you its title, who wrote the book, and when and where it was published.  With primary sources it’s more of a conjecture/discovery process and far more of a challenge.
  • You are looking for evidence to solve a historical mystery.  Sometimes the clues are small and you have to put the pieces together.  Does your document contribute something to this mystery?
  • What is the value of this primary source to history?  Is it an appropriate representation of a historical moment?
  • Create a narrative.  Tell a story with the documents.  What part of the story is your document?
  • What hasn’t been said in these documents?  What are the “silences”?