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 recorded?
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 sources)?
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.
Reading Documents and Primary Sources
The following exercise provides an introduction to the study of original historical documents. For the purpose of this exercise, you may assume that the document is genuine. Your assignment is, first, to read the document carefully and understand both its content and context. You are then to write an essay assessing the place of the document in the history of twentieth-century Europe. Make sure that you answer the following questions somewhere in your essay. You will probably need to refer to secondary sources as you conduct this analysis; list them at the end of your paper.
1. What kind of source is the document?
2. What is the date of the document? Where and under what circumstances did it originate? Of what importance is this information?
3. Who is the author/speaker of the document? What do we or what should we know about each of these persons? Are these authors/speakers reliable? Can the author's views be taken at face value? What is the audience for the document? Of what importance is this knowledge for an analysis of the document?
4. Summarize the content of the document. Is the content biased? How should the historians compensate for such bias? How might the historian as a reader of the document be biased?
5. Are there individuals, events, or other specific information mentioned in the document? Identify each person, event, or item of information. What additional or specialized information is needed to read and understand the document? Be specific and make a list. Where might such information be found?
6. Is the content of the document reasonable or probable?
7. In what historical context should the document be placed? At what point in the development of the twentieth-century did it occur? What background events influenced the document? What happened following the document?
Selected Basic Documents of Twentieth-Century History
World War I Propaganda Posters.
The Great War Poetry of Wilfred Owen.
The Twenty-five Points of the NSDAP, 1920 [Nazi Party Platform].
Benito Mussolini, "The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism".
Für uns or The Triumph of the Will (Nazi Propaganda Films).
The Nuremberg Laws (Nazi Germany), 1935.
Nazi Propaganda Posters.
The Hossbach Memorandum, 1938.
The Atlantic Charter, 1941.
The Wannsee Protocol, 20 January 1942.
President Truman's Statement on the Bombing of Hiroshima, 6 August 1945.
The Indictment of the Major War Criminals, International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 6 October 1945.
Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" Speech, 5 March 1946.
President Truman's Speech to Congress [The Truman Doctrine], 12 March 1947.
The Marshall Plan, 5 June 1947.
George F. Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947), 566-582.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
The Treaty of Washington (North Atlantic Treaty), 4 April 1949.
Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, 25 February 1956.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).
The Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957 [Creation of the Common Market].
President John F. Kennedy's Address to the Nation [The Cuban Missile Crisis], 22 October 1961.
President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" Speech, 26 June 1963.
The Helsinki Final Act, 1 August 1975.
The Internet Modern History Sourcebook
Eurodocs: Western European Primary Historical Documents
The Avalon Project at Yale University
(A Collection of Treaties, Legal Documents, and Other Sources)
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