Primary Source Exercise and Guide

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Contrary to popular opinion, history as encountered in textbooks, at museums, and on television is not transmitted directly from the past to the present in complete narrative form. People rarely consciously create documents and other sources during and about a particular event or time for the express purpose of adding to the historical record. Rather, history is the product of interpretating often disparate, incomplete, and contradictory remnants of the past. Taken together, these remnants are called primary sources. These can include newspapers, diaries, letters, oral history interviews and reminiscences, artifacts, music, visual art, poetry, cartoons, fiction, institutional records, personal papers, and an incalculable number of other materials produced during the historical period or event in question. Interviewing your grandmother on her experience in Jim Crow Mississippi to better understand the civil rights struggles and mining old issues of the Chicago Defender  are all examples of primary source research. Professional, amateur, and student historians observe, analyze, and interpret these primary sources based on research questions, producing secondary sources that answer questions about the past and advance a thesis. Secondary sources rarely derive from primary sources alone. Rather, they incorporate the findings, approaches, or interpretive frameworks of other secondary sources into their analysis and often challenge existing interpretations. In this sense, history is an ongoing discussion in which primary sources comprise the evidence to advance or refute interpretations of the past.

Secondary Research

So where do you start? Think of a topic that interests you. It may help to consult the National History Day theme and explore the resources and tips on their website.Once you have narrowed down a topic, consult the secondary literature relating to your subject. Consult sources cited in bibliographies for further background reading. As you read, look for topics you would like to know more about, conflicting interpretations among authors, or lines of inquiry not yet taken. You will start to develop questions as you consult secondary sources. These will inform your primary source research.

Locate Primary Sources

With your intitial research questions in hand, you are ready to conduct primary source research. Before you can consult primary sources, you need to locate them. You can find primary sources in a number of places including public libraries, archives, and online, but for our purposes here we will only discuss those at the Women and Leadership Archives. Consult the WLA list of collections related to the National History Day theme. Browse the WLA's digital collections. Help yourself to the digital collections or contact the WLA to arrange a research vist. If you don't know what you are looking for, archive staff will be able to direct you to pertinent collections. Consult finding aids to locate materials you would like to review.

Observe, Analyze, and Interpret

Now that you have your primary sources in hand (or on screen) you are ready for research. This process involves three stages: observe, analyze, and interpret. During the first stage, you simply look at (or listen to, feel, etc.) and describe what you notice about a single source. What is depicted or described? What is not? What is familiar or unfamiliar to you? Once you have noted your descriptive observations, you are ready to move on to the next stage.

Analysis involves forming and testing hypotheses, or educated guesses, about the source and asking critical questions of it. What is happening in an image or account? Who created it and why? Can you perceive a particular bias? Why do you think this item is important? What can you learn from it? What can't you learn? What questions does the source leave unanswered?

Remember: just because a primary source is a voice from the past does not mean that what it says is absolute fact. Just like today, accounts can contain misinformation, are shaped by social and cultural perspectives, and are influenced by unstated assumptions. Does this mean that primary sources are inherently unreliable? Yes and no. If taken at face value, they can distort the past. If the researcher asks why a source takes a certain position or embodies some sort of cultural assumption, for example, one can derive a great deal of meaningful information from problematic sources.

Once you have interrogated singular or small groups of sources in this manner, the next step is interpretation. This involves explaining your observations in the body of sources you examined and developing a thesis. Interpretation is essentially the story telling part of history; the point where you put your account to paper (or poster board, documentary, website, stage, etc.). What themes, perspectives, and concepts were prominent in the sources? What were the terms of agreement or disagreement between historical voices? What motivated people in a particular event? How do your findings fit into or challenge existing accounts? During this process you may encounter new questions or problems and find it necessary to revisit your sources. Organize your interpretation around your thesis, supporting it with your analysis of the primary sources.


Teachers: You may find it helpful to prime your students for this exercise with background information from this exhibit, or a brief introduction to the Civil Rights Era.

While the three step process is useful in analyzing any primary source, each primary source format is unique and warrants lines of questioning specific to it. This exercise is designed to guide students through the steps of primary source analysis using a series of different materials from the Activist Mundelein exhibit. It may be used independently or in the classroom.

Please click on each of the source groups below. Record your answers to the "observe" and "analyze" questions corresponding to each source. Also pose some of your own questions to the sources. Then attempt to interpret the sources as a whole, developing a thesis and supporting it with your source analysis.



Oral History