Analyzing Primary Sources
Never be stumped by a Maori artifact again.
This 6-lesson short course will teach students how to identify, interpret, and use primary sources to study history. Each lesson will focus on a different category of primary source (textual, visual, audio, or material), and will include an activity built around one or two examples of that primary source. The examples will be deliberately unfamiliar, to minimize students' preexisting biases and ideas about the source. We won't be reading the Declaration of Independence, but we might be looking at illustrations of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or material objects from the Maori. The final lesson will ask students to take the next step in historical analysis. They will be asked to take a group of primary sources all related to the same event and construct a short argument based around the sources.
When they finish this course, students will be able to:
- Identify and categorize primary source materials.
- Determine basic information about a primary source, including its location, authorship, date, and audience.
- Analyze the more complicated aspects of primary sources, and ask questions about authorial bias, inaccuracy, objectivity, and historical context.
- Interpret a variety of different kinds of primary sources, including texts, images, audio recordings, and material objects.
- Begin to use primary sources to develop their own ideas and make historical arguments.
Unit 1. Analyzing Primary Sources
This course is a comprehensive introduction to how to read and evaluate primary sources. After starting by defining primary sources, we'll go over how to evaluate documents, images, sounds, and objects, and round it all out by testing students' chops with a mini-essay.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: What is a Primary Source?
Are you ready for some primary source action? Ready to dig in to some old documents and probably find a secret map written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence, National Treasure-style? Yeah, actually, we're not quite there yet.
Before we fight a bunch of people to protect American history (actually, we're never doing that; that's the sequel to this course), we're going to have to figure out what primary sources actually are. Not to give away the ending, but primary sources are original materials that were created during the time under study. Then we're going to need to know how to find and identify them in the wild. And then, once we catch them, and avoid their claws, we're going to need to know what kinds of questions to ask them. And hope they have some answers for us.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1: Some Definitions
Defining Primary Sources
Primary sources are original materials that were created during the time under study, or by someone with firsthand knowledge of the event. Did we mention that already? We feel like we're repeating ourselves. So let's take that statement apart a little bit.
Original materials could mean lots of things. "Original" means the source was created by someone actually living in the period we're studying. So, when we're studying the Civil War, an original material would be the diary of a Civil War soldier. He wrote it himself, and he was actually in the war; it originated in that time. "Materials" means that primary sources can take different forms. It could be a letter someone wrote, a poster, a painting or photograph, or a recorded interview. It could even be a song or a material object, like a sword, a cooking pot, or a toy.
Created at the time under study just means that the object was originally made during the period in history that we're studying. So, for example, a newspaper article published yesterday that talks about World War I would not be a primary source, because it was written 100 years after the event. But then the definition says or by somebody with firsthand knowledge. That means primary sources could include memoirs, letters, or interviews that were made a long time after the actual event, if the person making them was actually there at the time...like a World War I vet.
Got it? Okay, now let's talk about what isn't a primary source. This is anything written about the past that wasn't written at the time, or wasn't written by someone with firsthand knowledge of the event. Secondary sources are usually texts that use a bunch of primary sources to make an argument or interpret the past.
Let's talk through an example. Say you're writing a paper about September 11th, and it needs to have primary and secondary sources.
- Interviews with people who witnessed the attack would be primary sources.
- Documents from government officials describing their decisions and actions that day would be primary sources.
- A live TV broadcast of the attacks would be a primary source.
- A book like this one, written about terrorism and published in 2007, would be a secondary source. Get it?
Types of Primary Sources and Where They Live
Like we said, there are a ton of different types of objects that could be primary sources. Here are some of the most important categories:
- Texts. Any primary source that's written down. It might be personal (like letters and diary entries), or it might be published, like books or newspapers. If it has letters and you can read it, it's a text.
- Images. Predictably, this is any primary source that is mostly visual. That includes all kinds of things, from paintings and drawings to photographs and posters, to really awesome tapestries and friezes.
- Recordings. Audio primary sources only go back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the technology was invented. But for the last 150 years, we've got recordings of music, oral histories, interviews, TV shows, and radio programs, which speak to us about the past, literally.
- Objects. This is pretty much everything else—clothing, toys, coins, tools, and any other object you can think of that was made in the past. Yeah, that's a big category.
You probably have two questions. First, if all of these things can be primary sources, isn't pretty much everything that ever existed a primary source? Well, kinda! But think about it this way: the further back in time you go, the less likely we are to have these kinds of primary sources. Texts degrade (and writing didn't always exist), so the earliest ones we can possibly have are from about 300 CE (and those are super rare), unless they're on stone, like hieroglyphics. (Fun fact: the earliest example of Greek writing is seriously a love spell on a cup.) We're more likely to have old images, but those degrade too. Recordings are obviously all pretty young. And objects are the most likely to survive, but are rarer and rarer the further back we go in time. Yeah, we have 5,000-year-old objects from Mesopotamia, but since stone is more likely to survive than people's clothes or their paintings, we're missing a lot of stuff.
So while we have a ton of stuff from the recent past, our primary sources get rarer and rarer as we move back in history, and our knowledge of the past, and our ability to reconstruct it, gets sketchier and sketchier as we go backwards.
Second, you might be thinking, where in the world is all this old stuff kept? Is there a huge, secret, Area 51 type of warehouse in the Nevada desert? (Nope. Although, would we know if there were?) Are there NSA databases that have recorded every sound for the past 150 years? (Not that we know of, but we wouldn't be surprised.) Are there massive libraries where everyone wears an orange anti-contamination suit so that the ancient texts don't get messed up? (We wish.) And how do we get our sticky little historian fingers onto them? Well, primary sources can be found in two major ways.
First, there's the actual, real, physical objects themselves. Those are almost all kept in archives, museums, or personal collections. Archives are places that are specially designated to collect, organize, and store historical documents (or sounds). Most universities have their own archives, and so does every state. Archives aren't just a jumble of old stuff, though, like your grandma's attic. They're very carefully organized and focused collections. One archive might specialize in children's books from the nineteenth century, while another archive only deals with legal documents.
But we're not going to make you travel around the country visiting archives. We wouldn't make you cram your face with fast food for days, just for the sake of primary sources. Instead, we're going to use the second way of finding primary sources: using the interwebs. There are millions of primary sources that have been digitized and put on the Internet. This is the single most exciting thing about the Internet, we're pretty sure. The kind of thing that makes us jump up and down and shout "Internet for president!" Because now, more people can do real historical research than ever before. Here are some great examples of collections of primary sources:
- The Internet Archive Texts collection
- Smithsonian Institute Collections
- British History Online
- The National Archives
Go check out at least one of those sites, and poke around with their search engines. In your notes, with your sparkly plastic pen, jot down a couple of notes on what kinds of sources the site provides.
Then watch this Shmooptastic video on primary sources.
What is a primary source video
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.1: Questioning your Sources
And now to the real sources! We can barely contain our excitement. In this activity, we're going to take little tiny baby steps through the process of analyzing our first primary source. We don't want to get your brains too mushy before we start, so go ahead and follow this link to images of an object called Tipu's Tiger. Right now, don't worry about all the text, just scroll through the images on the blog. Stare at the pretty (weirdly gruesome) pictures.
Got a good idea of what that thing is? A crazy sculpture of a tiger eating a dude? Hold that in your head. Now we're going to introduce the Six Great Questions All Historians Love. These are the questions that you have to ask yourself every time you meet a new primary source:
- Who created the source, and when and where?
- Who was the intended audience or user of the source?
- Why was the source created?
- What are the potential biases or prejudices of the source?
- What is the historical context of the source? What else was going on when this was made?
- Why is it significant? What does it tell us about history?
Now, just from looking at those pictures of Tipu's Tiger, how many of these questions would you be able to answer? Probably not very many. But let's go see how some really great historians have answered those questions. Read this museum article from the Victorian and Albert Collection. Read it carefully, yo, because there's gonna be some questions about it.
That article is a spot-on description of a primary source. But we won't just sit back and relish the weirdness of the Tiger, crazy as it is. We want you to start to take apart this analysis to see how the writer did it. Using the article as a reference, answer all six of the Great Questions about Tipu's Tiger. You should have 2-3 sentences for each answer.
- Course Length: 2 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Short Course
- History and Social Science
- Life Skills
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1