A beginner’s guide to analyzing historical documents

academics history
By Pete P.

For GMAT Sentence Correction questions, consider the subject_verb relationship (5)

Most high school and college-level history courses will require that you read, interpret, and analyze a document or set of documents from the past—otherwise known as primary sources. In this post, I will provide five basic questions that you should ask about your document(s) that will kickstart your thinking about the past and serve as a starting point for formulating an argument for a paper or project. These questions constitute the basic toolkit that all historians use when they research and write about any topic or time period. By asking and answering these questions you will be doing history at its most fundamental level.

1. What is it?

The answer to this question may seem painfully obvious but it is central to higher levels of historical analysis. What type of document do you have in front of you? A personal letter, a government report, a newspaper, a receipt, a law, a diary? You can identify your source’s type by looking at the information it contains, how that information is organized, and what language or format it’s in.

2. When was it made?

Most of the time you will be able to locate a date fairly easily, especially in transcribed documents. But if not, take a couple of minutes to scan the source and record a date or time period. You should always have some idea of when a primary source was created. You can then start thinking about what else you know was happening at the time the source was created—whether that’s from your own research or other class materials. For example, if a newspaper was written in 1942, what information would you expect to see based on what you know was going on in world affairs at that time? This will help you start connecting different types of sources.

3. Who wrote it?

In addition to when a document was written, you always want to keep in mind who or what created it. A company? A government agency? A person? What type of person? In what capacity was that person writing (e.g. as a friend, a family member, a co-worker, an authority figure)? Before you analyze the document, think about what type of information you might expect to find based on who wrote it. Make a note if it contains (or omits) something different from your expectation!

4. Who is the intended audience?

Once you know the type of document, when it was made, and who made it, you can begin to assess why it might have been created and for whom. Sources can take on new audiences over time. For example, a classified government report would suggest the document is for a select group of privileged individuals who have proper clearance to see it. But if that report was printed in a newspaper, or read aloud in Congress, the audience changes drastically, and the source takes on new meaning. Answering this question is critical, especially when formulating historical arguments. A source’s intended audience always shapes the type of information it contains and the message it conveys.

5. What is its materiality?

This question typically applies to students doing research projects and examining primary sources in archives (both in-person and digital). This question is also central to analysis of material objects from the past (which are also primary sources!). How big or small is the object? What is its shape? What is it made of? What color is it? These types of questions will help you think about why an object was made and how it may have been used.