Analysis of Primary Sources

Historians analyze historical sources in different ways. First, historians think about where, when and why a document was created. They consider whether a source was created close in location and time to an actual historical event. Historians also think about the purpose of a source. Was it a personal diary intended to be kept private? Was the document prepared for the public?

Some primary sources may be judged more reliable than others, but every source is biased in some way. As a result, historians read sources skeptically and critically. They also cross-check sources against other evidence and sources. Historians follow a few basic rules to help them analyze primary sources. Read these rules below. Then read the questions for analyzing primary sources. Use these rules and questions as you analyze primary source documents yourself.

Time and Place Rule

To judge the quality of a primary source, historians use the time and place rule. This rule says the closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be. Based on the time and place rule, better primary sources (starting with the most reliable) might include:

Bias Rule

The historians' second rule is the bias rule. It says that every source is biased in some way. Documents tell us only what the creator of the document thought happened, or perhaps only what the creator wants us to think happened. As a result, historians follow these bias rule guidelines when they review evidence from the past:

Questions for Analyzing Primary Sources

The following questions may help you judge the quality of primary sources:

  1. Who created the source and why? Was it created through a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
  2. Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event? Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?
  3. Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?
  4. Did the recorder produce the source for personal use, for one or more individuals, or for a large audience?
  5. Was the source meant to be public or private?
  6. Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others? (Check the words in the source. The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be objective or persuasive.) Did the recorder have reasons to be honest or dishonest?
  7. Was the information recorded during the event, immediately after the event, or after some lapse of time? How large a lapse of time?