Primary Document Analysis Handout
When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. Understanding past events through an
examination of primary sources– journals, reports, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or
autobiographies—is critical to developing a greater understanding of the historical past.As a historian, you will approach a source with a
different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently.
Students will analyze the content, messages, and historical context of the document provided for each module. Students must first put the
document in its historical context, before establishing its historical significance, and critically analyze its’ core themes. A specific hand
out, detailing how to perform a document analysis will be made available through Blackboard. Document analyses should be 6-7 pages in length,
size 12 font, Times New Roman, double-spaced. All assignments will be submitted through Blackboard pm on the date they are due. Assignments
must be submitted in Word .doc or .docx format.
For each document analysis:
– 30% of the grade will be based on placing the document in its proper historical context, IE When was the document written? What was
happening at this time? What factors and other actors might have influenced the creation, distribution, and reception of this document?
Additional research will be required to do this. Students must use scholarly sources (no dictionaries, encyclopedia, or Wikipedia allowed). All
citations must be in Chicago format. Footnotes are to be used (No MLA or APA citations).
– 30% of the grade will be based on establishing the historical significance of the work. IE Why is this document importance? What was
the wider implications and significance of it within the country it was produced? Outside of that country? How did various groups of people
react and receive it?
– 30% of the grade will be determined based on the understanding demonstrated of the core messages and themesin the document. What is the
author discussing? What messages, ideas, concepts, ideologies, and beliefs are being discussed? Why are these important?
– 10% of the grade will be calculated based on proper use of grammar, syntax, spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and formatting
In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. It is
critical that you both analyze the core messages of the document, as well as the historical context surrounding its creation and reception.
The following questions may be helpful to you as you begin to analyze the sources:
1. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author’s message or argument? Is the message explicit or implicit?
2. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods do they use?
3. What information do we know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this
matter in the text? If so, how so?
4. Who is the intended audience of the document?
5. What does the author say AND what does the author NOT say?
6. Does it describe any ideology and/or behavior?
7. Does it talk discuss the beliefs/actions of elite, or of “ordinary” people?
8. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
9. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
10. How does your analysis fit with the interpretations of other historians? Does this source support or challenge their argument?
11. WHY IS THIS SOURCE IMPORTANT?
Remember that you do not need to specifically address all of these questions. However, they are designed to guide you as you analyze the
document, and ensure that the critical information is included in your analysis. Students MUST answer the basic questions (Who, What, When,
Where, Why) concerning the document and the author.