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Analyzing and Understanding: Analyzing Historical Documents

In your social studies, history, or civics class, your teacher may ask you to answer a historical question or analyze a certain event or time period using primary sources. If you were asked to undertake this assignment, would you know where to begin? How can you tell a primary source from a secondary source? And how do you evaluate primary sources?

Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources

A primary source or a historical document is an original document that was created by a person or group who participated in or witnessed a particular event. In other words, the creator of a historical document had firsthand knowledge of an event.

Historical documents include speeches, court decisions, government documents, laws, letters, interviews, and diaries.

A secondary source is a work that comments on, explains, or discusses an event. The writer of a secondary source provides an account or interpretation of events based on information gathered from primary sources. It may have been written long after the event took place and is a secondhand version of events.

Secondary sources include textbooks, nonfiction books and biographies, book reviews, and encyclopedias.

In general, if the document you are reading was written by a person or group who took part in an event or witnessed it, the document is a primary source. If it was written by someone who is discussing the event, but did not take part in it or witness it, the document is a secondary source. For example, President Barack Obama's inaugural addresses are primary sources. An article that discusses President Obama's inaugural addresses and political views is a secondary source.

Newspaper and magazine articles can be either primary sources or secondary sources. The issue of time is important when deciding whether a newspaper or magazine article is a primary or secondary source. For example, a newspaper article from 150 years ago might be considered a primary source because at that time participants' versions or eyewitness accounts of events were often included in newspapers. However, a recent newspaper article (unless it is an eyewitness account) is usually considered a secondary source.

The Importance of Historical Documents

So, if you can read about an event using a secondary source, why use historical documents? The following are just some of the reasons why historical documents are important:

  • Historical documents help to make history come alive. They connect us to the past, and they allow us to reach back and touch that past by reading the words of an individual or group who took part in or witnessed an event.
  • Using historical documents helps you to learn how to interpret material. Remember that all secondary sources—even your textbook—are accounts or  interpretations of events. While most secondary sources aim to be objective, some may have been influenced by the time in which they were written or may reflect their author's particular viewpoint.
  • For example, pretend that a friend of yours just read a great book and wrote a summary of it for you. The book is the primary source, and the summary is the secondary source. Even though your friend's summary may be very detailed, it might be missing information that you think is interesting or relevant, and you would probably want to read the book to form your own interpretation of it.
  • In the same way, by studying historical documents (probably the same documents that the author of the secondary source used in his or her research), you can form your own interpretation of an event, judging for yourself whether you agree with the interpretation of an event by the author of the secondary source.
  • Historical documents can help you to understand more about an event. Studying several documents that have been written from different viewpoints will help you to understand an event much more thoroughly.
  • For example, pretend that a friend of yours was involved in a car accident. Very likely, your friend has one version of the accident while the driver of the other car has a different version. If you wanted a thorough, complete account of events, you would listen to both versions of the accident, not just one.
  • In the same way, the author of a historical document is relating an event, but it is the author's viewpoint only, and another individual or group might have a very different opinion. For example, U.S. Supreme Court justices hear the same evidence and material but often have different opinions on a case. If you were to read the majority decision, but not the dissenting opinion, you would not have a complete and balanced understanding of the case.
  • Analyzing historical documents teaches you to question where information comes from and the validity and reliability of those sources. When you begin to read and evaluate a document, you will ask yourself several questions, including, "Who is the author?" and "Is this individual or group neutral?" For more information, see Evaluating Historical Documents.
  • Suppose you were reading a participant's account of a battle during the American Revolution (1775–83). How might the account be shaped by whether the participant was fighting for the Continental or British army? Whether the participant was a soldier or a general? Whether the participant was free or enslaved? It is vital to understand the author's background and purpose in writing the document, and to read as many accounts of an event as possible.
  • The use of historical documents shows that you have conducted thorough research. As a student, you are not expected to rely solely on historical documents, but the use of some primary source material shows that you have researched your topic and that you understand the importance of primary sources.
Evaluating Historical Documents

Once you have chosen a historic document that you would like to study, you will need to read through it and then evaluate it.

Read through the document to gain a general understanding of what it is about. Some historical documents—such as court decisions or laws—are written in a formal or very technical style and may be difficult to comprehend. Do not be concerned if you do not understand the complete document after one reading.

Read carefully through the document a second time. A close reading will help you gain a better understanding of the document's context and meaning. As you read the document, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Who created the document? If it was written by an individual, what is the background and social status of that person? Is the person neutral, or might he or she have had opinions or beliefs that influenced his or her writing? If the document was written by a government body or corporation, you should also question whether that organization is neutral or not.
  2. How does the author know what happened? Did the individual or group take part in or witness the event? Or is the document based on what others saw and heard? What does the answer imply about the document's credibility?
  3. When and where was the document created? Historians judge historical documents according to the time and place rule—the closer in time and place an author and source were to an event, the more reliable that source might be. A historical document created during the event or immediately after it is usually more reliable than a document created many years after the event took place.
  4. In what historical context was the document created? It is important to know this because the author might have been influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of that time. Is the historical document similar to or different from other primary sources created at that time?
  5. What is the main point that the author is discussing? What evidence does the author use to support this point? What is the tone of the document? Remember that authors may use sarcasm or jokes or exaggeration in their writings.
  6. Why was the document created? Did the author want to inform or persuade others? Remember that the author of a document is writing about an event from his or her viewpoint or may even be trying to convince you that something happened or needs to happen.
    As you read, keep the bias rule in mind, which states that every source is biased, or writing about an event from his or her viewpoint, in some way. Read the document carefully and critically. Are there any words that lead you to believe that the source is biased? After you have finished reading the historical document, compare it against other primary and secondary sources to determine whether the information is reliable and accurate. Remember that even though an author may be biased, the historical document can still contain much valuable information.
  7. What was the purpose of the document? Was it meant for a large audience, like a law or a court decision? Or was it a personal source meant for a very small audience, like a letter or a diary? Remember that even a published document may not be accurate. An unpublished document may provide crucial and fascinating details about an event because the author assumed it would never be seen by the public.
  8. Who was the intended or likely audience? What do you know about the audience?
  9. How is this document interpreted today? Does your knowledge of the event affect your interpretation of the document?
  10. How will this document help you answer a historical question or support your thesis statement?

Use the Historical Document Worksheet in conjunction with the questions above to help you evaluate a historic document.

For examples and additional information, including lesson plans involving analyzing and understanding historical documents, see:


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