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Critical Assessment of Primary and Secondary Sources

Assessment and analyzing primary source documents

Analyzing primary sources

While there are no absolute rules about how to read and interpret primary sources, it is commonly accepted that by answering the 5 W's (and an H!) you should obtain a good understanding of the document. 

As a first step, it is recommended that you read the document from beginning to end without taking notes. Read the document as often as you need to, until you feel like you have a good grasp of what it is and what it says. 

As a second step, read the document and take notes, answering the 5 W's:  

  • Who created the document
  • What information does the document tell me
  • When was the document created
  • Where was it created and/or where does the information it contains take place (these may not be the same location)
  • Why was this document created

And the H:

  • How was the document created. The answer to this question has the potential to provide contextual information about the record

Each of these questions has a factual answer and none of them can be answered with a simple yes or no. The idea is to get you to do a critical reading of the document to understand how it will support your research. 

It is also a good idea to answer the following questions when reading primary source documents:  

  • Does this document provide information that supports or challenges commonly accepted conclusions about your topic?
  • Does this document provide accurate or biased information?
  • How do you know the information is accurate or biased? What are the reasons for this bias if it exists
As you do your analysis, keep in mind the context, circumstances and time period in which the document was created. Answering the above questions in view of these points is what will allow you to interpret the document in a manner that will be useful for your research.

If you would like more information on reading primary sources, these are some good places to start:

How to read a primary source (University of Iowa) 

Primary sources: evaluating (Lafayette College)

Exercise Instructions

The document for this exercise is part of the Milton Silva Papers (MC 93), in the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives. 

Read the document and answer the following questions: 

  • Who created this document?
  • What information does this document tell you?
  • Why was this document created?
  • When was this document created?
  • How was this document created?
  • Does this document provide accurate or biased information?

Remember to keep the context, circumstances and time period in mind as you read the document.

It is by answering these questions that you will begin to understand the historical value of the document and what information it can provide you for your (theoretical) research paper.

 

Think about this

What kind of research topic would this document be an obvious primary source for? 

If we expand our idea of how to use this document as a primary source, what other kinds of research would this be helpful for? 

What kinds of secondary sources can we use to help us understand this document and our research?