Identifying Primary Sources



1.  What is the nature of the source?

You’ll want to know what kind of source it is — a newspaper, an oral history account, a diary entry, a government document, etc. — because different kinds of sources must be considered differently. For example, you might think about a description of a Civil War camp differently than you would think about a photograph of one, or you might have different questions about census data regarding poverty in the 1930s than you would about oral history interviews with people who were poor during the Depression.

2.  Who created this source, and what do I know about him/her/them?

Knowing something about who created the source you’re using can help you determine what biases they might have had, what their relationship to the things they described in the source might have been, and whether or not this source should be considered credible. Keep in mind that someone doesn’t have to be famous or need to have played a dramatic role in history to be a credible source — in terms of understanding the experience of World War I, for example, the writings of a regular soldier in the trenches may be as valuable or even much more so than the recollections of President Wilson or a general.  You might wonder different things about the account depending on who wrote it, so knowing the author would definitely help you start to ask the right questions.

3.  When was the source produced?

Knowing when the source was produced can help you start to put it into historical perspective. A discussion of women’s rights in America, for example, would obviously be very different in the 1820s (one hundred years before women could vote), the 1920s (when women first got the vote), the 1970s (when the feminist movement was thriving and the Equal Rights Amendment was debated), and 2013. If you don’t know when a source was written, you can’t start to put it into its historical context and understand how it connects to historical events.

4.  Where was the source produced?

Just as it is important to situate the source in time, it’s also important to identify the place where the source was produced. If you found an editorial in a newspaper discussing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, you would want to know where the newspaper was published — a newspaper from Montgomery might be considered very differently from one published in Boston, Massachusetts, Mobile, Alabama, or Washington, D.C.