Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

HIS 1200 American History: Analyzing Primary Material

Guide to resources for the study of American life and culture.

Initial Things to Consider

When approaching a primary source material, it's important to understand both the item itself and the time period and culture from which it originates. You should also consider what experiences and skills you bring to the table and how that might affect your interpretation of an item. Analyzing primary source materials is an important part of being a historian as it is the basis for how people interpret and understand the past.

Here are some questions you might ask when looking at a primary source:

  • What is the item you are examining? A diary? A photograph? An interview?
  • How does the physical nature of the item manifest itself? Is it the original or reproduction? What material is it made from? How does its form relate to its purpose?
  • Who was the creator of the item (if known)? What is their background, identity, and ideology? What was their perspective of the world they lived in?
  • Who was the intended audience for the item?
  • What is the meaning behind the item? What message does it convey either explicitly or implicitly?

How to Analyze a Historical Source

Other Resources