Introduction to the Study of History
Reading a Primary Source

Primary sources are the raw materials from which histories are made. Reading and evaluating such sources is a difficult but also exhilarating task. They also afford a rare opportunity for the historian to come into direct contact with the past. By giving the historian this "access," the primary source helps him/her to experience the past imaginatively, an essential step toward the recreation of it using the content of the primary source.

Suggested questions for the evaluation of primary sources:

1. What kind of source is it?

    A Formal Treatise, such as Adolf Hitler' Mein Kampf;

    A Contemporary Formal History, such as Eusebius' Life of Constantine;

    A Public Record (records of government and of business operation and administration; records
    of legislative debates; judicial cases and decisions; statutes, laws, and proclamations; and public
    letters or statements made by statesmen, politicians, and executives), such as diplomatic
    documents relating to the outbreak of war;

    Private Letters and Journals, such as the diary of a president;

    Literary Sources, such as a novel or a poem;

    Nonverbal Sources (including art, architecture, music, photography, and so on);

2. Is the source/document genuine? How do you know? Is the source/document original or is it a
    reprint? What is the physical condition of the source? Does this give you clues as to its intended
    use? its interpretation? What does its physical condition tell you the past?

3. What is its date of origin? Is it contemporary with the events it relates to? More distant in time?
    How distant?

4. Who is the author? Did the author have firsthand information available? If not, what is the source
    of his/her information? Is the author reliable? What is the relationship of the author to the event

5. Who is the audience? How do you know? If the source was delivered, how was it done?

6. Read through the entire document quickly; from this overview you should have a sense of the
    whole source, an appreciation of its importance for your study, and an inkling of the problems
    that remain to be overcome before the source can be used. Are their biases that need to be taken
    into account (in the source or in you as a reader)?

7. Read the document carefully, isolating the content you can immediately understand. Remember
    that sources/documents were created/written by particular men or women for a specific purpose.
    You must accordingly be able to identify the time period, the author, the reason for writing and/or
    creation, and the audience; you should also be able to ascertain the impact of the source/
    document on the audience.


        Time and place;
        Personalities and roles (be able to identify every person
            mentioned in the document and his/her role);
        Meaning and Purpose of the source/document;
        Content (be sure you understand all words and
            phrases, especially those that might have meant
            something different for the author);
        Allusions (events, etc. the author takes for granted
            the audience will understand);
        Assumptions and/or Bias.

8. Do the contents of the document/sources seem reasonable or probable, given what you already
    know or common sense?

9. Are there other documents/sources that provide corroborating testimony or information? Place
    the source/document in the context of the other documents you are studying and answer any
    questions that might arise: Does the source/document confirm what other sources or documents
    have told you? Does it contradict them? etc.

10. Also place the document in the larger historical context of the events you are studying. How
    does your interpretation of the document fit in with what others have said or written (in secondary

As you conduct this study, also note any of the above that you can not immediately identify; each of these will have to be looked up in a reliable reference work.

Once you have completed these steps, you are ready to use your source/document.

Introduction to the Study of History
Discusion Questions 4

Reading a Primary Source

The accompanying written and visual primary sources deal with the encounter between American militia and British troops at Lexington Green in April 1775.  Your assignment is to analyze them and to write (at least) a two-page history of this event.  In your essay, tell what happened, why it happened, and why the event is important.  Before you write your history, answer the following questions in writing and be prepared to discuss them and your reconstruction of this event in class.  Also construct a time line and attempt to diagram the event.  Answer Questions 1-7 for any four of the documents and construct the time line (Question 8).  (Review Rampolla, 6-24)

1. What kind of source is each document?  Are these sources genuine?  How might you establish their authenticity?

2. What is the date of each document?  Where and under what circumstances did it originate?  Of what importance for a historian is this information?

3. Who is the author/speaker in each document?  What do we or what should we know about each of these persons?  Are these authors/speakers reliable?  What is the audience for each document?  Of what importance is this knowledge for a historian’s analysis of the document?

4. What is the content of each document?  Is the content biased?  How should the historians compensate for such bias?  How might the historian as a reader of these documents be biased?

5. Is the content of each document reasonable or probable?

6. Do the documents corroborate each other?  In what way?  Do they contradict each other?  In what way?  Give specific examples.

7. What additional or specialized information is needed to read and understand each document?  Be specific and make a list.  Where might such information be found?

8. Construct a time line for your reconstruction of the encounter at Lexington.

9. Write a two-page narrative of this encounter, documenting your main points with references to the primary sources.  In your essay you are to explain what happened on Lexington Grenn, why the encounter turned violent, and why this event is important.

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Rev. 4.I.2008

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