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How should I interpret a primary source?

Last Updated: Jun 02, 2014  |  71 Views

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Primary sources, such as diaries, manuscripts, maps, images, drawings, memoirs, are created by those who participated in or witnessed past events.  They help provide the tools and evidence to interpret the past.

Reading and evaluating primary source materials helps us understand an author’s interpretation of past events, based on his or her own opinions and biases.  

Although the content, context, and usefulness of a primary source varies from one instance to the next, there are a number of questions that you should consider as you are evaluating a primary source:

  • What is the tone?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the purpose of the publication?
  • What assumptions does the author make?
  • What are the bases of the author's conclusions?
  • Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
  • Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
  • Where was the source made? (questions of systemic bias)
Keep in mind that primary sources may be fragmented and difficult to interpret; do not be afraid to ask for assistance from a librarian or your professor.
Answered by Brody SelleckBookmark and Share

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