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This is College Now: Part Two

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)


Primary source documents can answer questions like: 

  • Who founded College Now and why? 
  • What communities, did and do, College Now students come from? 
  • What organizations are working on political participation? 
  • In which ways are voting/political participation suppressed in the U.S.? 


Think about this

When we conduct research using primary sources, we aren't always using the sources as part of their intended purpose. What this means is that a grocery store receipt can have additional purposes than just telling us how much we paid for groceries, especially when we look at a group of receipts over a particular point in time. 

A group of receipts from purchases made over a twelve-month period can tell us:

  • The pattern of how a household worked e.g. who and when groceries were purchased, at which store, and how they paid for them;
  • What individuals and/or families were buying e.g. patterns of the same things being purchased can demonstrate what the general diet of an individual/family is; 
  • What the market trends were e.g. what was placed on sale and when.