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Primary Source Research

Analyzing and Interpreting Primary Sources

When first approaching a primary source it is important to consider the document itself and the time period in which it originates from.

Next, ask yourself the following questions in order to guide your analysis:

  • What is the physical nature of your source? Is it a letter, diary entry, or a newspaper article? How does the physical nature of the source relate to the purpose?
  • Who was the creator of the source? Does their background play a role in the creation of the source?
  • What was the author’s message or argument? What is the overall purpose or message of the source? How is this message conveyed?
  • Who is the intended audience of the source and how does this affect the interpretation? 
  • What literary devices are used? How do these add to the source and why would the author choose to use them? 
  • What historical questions can or can not be answered with this source? What are the limitations and benefits of this source?
  • Does your analysis of the source conflict or agree with other researcher’s interpretations? Why or why not?

Adapted from Carleton University, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others

Specific Examples

The above questions can be applied to any type of source, but you’ll find that certain documents lend themselves to medium-specific inquiries. Here are some further examples of questions you might ask yourself:

Photographs and Prints:

  • What tools and methods were used to create this image?
  • What do you see first?
  • What is left out of frame?
  • How might this look different if it were taken today?

Works of art:

  • Is this a finished piece or a mockup/sketch?
  • What materials are used and were those typical of the time?
  • Why did the artist create this piece?
  • How does this compare to other pieces of the time?

Letters or emails:

  • Is this personal correspondence or business?
  • What is the relationship between the writer and receiver?
  • What information can you learn from this that you cannot find anywhere else?


  • What was the original purpose of the document?
  • How might the creator's biases influenced what was reported in the document?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Does the information corroborate data from other sources (i.e. newspapers, photos, letters, etc)


  • Who used this and what for?
  • What can we learn from this that makes it worth preserving?
  • Can you think of a similar item from today? How does this differ?

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