Skip to Main Content

Using and Accessing Primary Sources

Evaluate and Analyze

  • In the study of history, perspective is everything. 
    • A letter written by a twenty-five-year old medical student will differ greatly from a letter written by a scholar of health science practices. Although the sentiment might be the same, the perspective and influences of these two authors will be worlds apart. 
  • A historian doesn't look for the truth, since this presumes there is only one true story. The historian tries to understand a number of competing viewpoints to form their own interpretation – what constitutes the best explanation of what happened and why.

The Ws

  • Who
    • Who authored the source? 
    • Who is the historical actor?
    • Who isn't represented in the historical record?
  • What
    • What is the document about (what points is the author making)?
    • What kind of audience did the author intend to reach?
    • What aren't you finding? What are the silences in the record?
  • When
    • When did this take place? 
    • When was the resource created or written?
  • Where
    • Where did the happening occur?
    • Where was the resource created, published, and/or disseminated?
  • Why
    • Why did something happen the way it did? 
    • Why was this resource created? (also involves the intended audience)

Examine your biases

  • What do you bring to the evidence that you examine?
  • Are you inductively following a path of evidence, developing your interpretation based on the sources? 
  • Do you have an ax to grind? 
  • Did you begin your research deductively, with your mind made up before even seeing the evidence? 


  • Use as wide a range of primary source documents and secondary sources as possible
  • Adds depth and richness to your historical analysis
  • The more exposure you have to different sources and viewpoints, the more you have a balanced and complete view about a topic in history
  • More exposure/viewpoints may spark more questions and ultimately lead you to unravel more clues about your topic