How to Read a Primary Source

Good reading is about asking questions of your sources. Keep the following in mind when reading primary sources. Even if you believe you can't arrive at the answers, imagining possible answers will aid your comprehension. Reading primary sources requires that you use your historical imagination. This process is all about your willingness and ability to ask questions of the material, imagine possible answers, and explain your reasoning. 

As a historian, you will want to ask:  

Evaluating primary source texts: I've developed an acronym that may help guide your evaluation of primary source texts: PAPER

Purpose and motives of the author 
Argument and strategy she or he uses to achieve those goals 
Presuppositions and values (in the text, and our own) 
Epistemology (evaluating truth content) 
Relate to other texts (compare and contrast) 







Now choose another of the readings, and compare the two, answering these questions: 

Here are some additional concepts that will help you evaluate primary source texts: 

Evaluating the veracity (truthfulness) of texts: 

For the rest of this discussion, consider the example of a soldier who committed atrocities against non-combatants during wartime. Later in his life, he writes a memoir that neglects to mention his role in these atrocities, and may in fact blame them on someone else. Knowing the soldier's possible motive, we would be right to question the veracity of his account. 

The credible vs. the reliable text: 

Reliability refers to our ability to trust the consistency of the author's account of the truth. A reliable text displays a pattern of verifiable truth-telling that tends to render the unverifiable parts of the text true. For instance, the soldier above may prove to be utterly reliable in detailing the campaigns he participated in during the war, as evidenced by corroborating records. The only gap in his reliability may be the omission of details about the atrocities he committed.

Credibility refers to our ability to trust the author's account of the truth on the basis of her or his tone and reliability. An author who is inconsistently truthful -- such as the soldier in the example above -- loses credibility. There are many other ways authors undermine their credibility. Most frequently, they convey in their tone that they are not neutral (see below). For example, the soldier above may intersperse throughout his reliable account of campaign details vehement and racist attacks against his old enemy. Such attacks signal readers that he may have an interest in not portraying the past accurately, and hence may undermine his credibility, regardless of his reliability. 

An author who seems quite credible may be utterly unreliable. The author who takes a measured, reasoned tone and anticipates counter-arguments may seem to be very credible, when in fact he presents us with complete fiction.  Similarly, a reliable author may not always seem credible. It should also be clear that individual texts themselves may have portions that are more reliable and credible than others. 

The neutral text: 

We often wonder if the author of a text has an "ax to grind" which might render her or his words unreliable. 

Neutrality refers to the stake an author has in a text. In the example of the soldier who committed wartime atrocities, the author seems to have had a considerable stake in his memoir, which was the expunge his own guilt. In an utterly neutral document, the creator is not aware that she or he has any special stake in the construction and content of the document.

Very few texts are ever completely neutral. People generally do not go to the trouble to record their thoughts unless they have a purpose or design which renders them invested in the process of creating the text. Some historical texts, such as birth records, may appear to be more neutral than others, because their creators seem to have had less of a stake in creating them. (For instance, the county clerk who signed several thousand birth certificates likely had less of a stake in creating an individual birth certificate than did a celebrity recording her life in a diary for future publication as a memoir.) Sometimes the stake the author has is the most interesting part of a document.