Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources

Use these documents to help guide your study of primary sources

How to read primary sources

Think of primary sources this way. Imagine a primary source as a movie and the textbook as a summary or review of the movie heard from a friend. While he or she may describe the movie in great detail and tell you how great it is, hearing about a movie is not the same as seeing it for yourself. There are parts that you will notice that your friend might not have, for example, or characters that might seem a lot like yourself. Wouldn’t you rather see a great movie than just hear or read about it?

Primary sources work in the same way. While textbooks provide a good overview of what happened, they are not the same as reading the words of people who actually lived through a particular event. Textbooks offer an interpretation of a historical person or event by those who did not witness them or live during that time period. Reading primary sources allows us to judge whether we agree with that interpretation because we will have read or seen the same primary sources as the textbook author.

If you have not read primary sources before, you might be surprised to find that it is not like reading from a textbook. Primary sources do not speak for themselves—they have to be interpreted. You do not just simply read about the past, you must investigate the past by asking questions.

To help you interpret primary sources, you might think about these questions as you examine the source:
A. Place the document in its historical context
1. Who wrote it? What do you know about this person?
2. Where and when was it written?
3. Why was it written?
4. Who was it written for? This is called the “audience.” What do you know about this audience?

B. Understanding the document
1. What are the key words and what do they mean?
2. What point is the author trying to make? Summarize the thesis.
3. What evidence does the author give to support this thesis.
4. What assumptions does the author make?

C. Evaluate the document as a source of historical information
1. Is this document similar to others from the same time period?
2. How widely was it circulated?
3. What problems, assumptions, and ideas does it share with other documents from the time period?

Asking yourself these questions as you read will help you understand and interpret the document for yourself. It is very tempting to use the textbook as a source of interpretations, especially if you encounter a primary source you do not completely understand. A critical part of the process of reading and using historical sources is figuring out what the documents can tell you about a past event, and to decide whether you agree with the interpretation offered by the author of your textbook. Primary sources support the author’s interpretation of the event, so without primary sources, he or she has no basis to make a conclusion about the past. Reading primary sources allows you to interpret the past by providing the tools and evidence needed to make informed statements about the world around you.

Primary Sources in the Classroom

Primary sources--diaries, manuscripts, journals, images, drawings, memoirs, and maps—created by those who participated in or witnessed past events reveal something that even the best article or book cannot. The use of these documents in the classroom exposes students to historical concepts and perspectives that are vital to understanding not only the past, but also the present. By reading primary sources, students become aware that all history is the author’s interpretation of past events based on his or her own opinions and biases. This allows students to recognize the subjective nature of history. Moreover, primary sources allow students direct access to the lives of people in the past. For many students, history is nothing more than names and dates. Reading the words of those who lived in the past provides the color and excitement so often missing from textbook accounts.

Using primary sources changes the way students view their textbooks. They begin to see their textbook as only one historical interpretation and not as absolute truth.


Information adapted from Wisconsin Historical Society