Source Analysis

This page is a refresher for how to analyze different kinds of sources you may encounter during your research.

Primary Sources: Begin with these core questions, appropriate for any source —

How did you find this item?
Are there any concerns about its validity or historical accuracy?
What does this item reveal more broadly about the era of …?
What year did this item appear?
Who made it, for whom, and why?
How does the item reflect the current events of the time?

Note: the first question in that list is more than just “what steps did you take to land on it?” This question and the one below it, address an item’s PROVENANCE. Provenance is how an item came to exist, and what happened to it between its creation and your encounter with it. Who owned it in between? How did it come to be preserved? Are there gaps in its history or unanswered questions about it? Is it authentic?

Try using one of the worksheets below; they give you a graphic organizer or set of questions you can apply to your source.

Primary Source Analysis Tool (Library of Congress)

How to Read a Primary Source: Historian as Detective (Brandeis University)

Document Analysis Sheet (Springfield Public Schools)

The Six C’s of Primary Source Analysis (UC Irvine)

Document Analysis Worksheet (Wisconsin Historical Society)

See also:

Making Sense of Evidence (History Matters) — detailed guides for analyzing a wide variety of sources, including oral histories, maps, films, letters and diaries, statistical data, advertisements, songs, photographs, political cartoons, speeches, and more.

Secondary Sources (Journal Articles, Scholarly Essays, Books):

Approach a secondary source strategically, using these suggestions and techniques.

Try applying the capstone level descriptors of the LEAP rubric for Critical Thinking to your analysis of a secondary source.