Read a Primary Source
Good reading is about asking questions of your sources. Keep the following in
mind when reading primary sources. Even if you believe you can't arrive at the
answers, imagining possible answers will aid your comprehension. Reading primary
sources requires that you use your historical imagination. This process is all
about your willingness and ability to ask questions of the material, imagine possible
answers, and explain your reasoning.
I. Evaluating primary source texts: I've developed an acronym that may help
guide your evaluation of primary source texts: PAPER.
- Purpose of the author in preparing the document
- Argument and strategy she or he uses to achieve those
- Presuppositions and values (in the text, and our
- Epistemology (evaluating truth content)
- Relate to other texts (compare and contrast)
- Who is the author and what is her or his place in society (explain
why you are justified in thinking so)? What could or might it be, based
on the text, and why?
- Why did the author prepare the document? What was the occassion for
- What is at stake for the author in this text? Why do you think she
or he wrote it? What evidence in the text tells you this?
- Does the author have a thesis? What -- in one sentence -- is that
- What is the text trying to do? How does the text make its case? What
is its strategy for accomplishing its goal? How does it carry out this
- What is the intended audience of the text? How might this influence
its rhetorical strategy? Cite specific examples.
- What arguments or concerns does the author respond to that are not
clearly stated? Provide at least one example of a point at which the
author seems to be refuting a position never clearly stated. Explain
what you think this position may be in detail, and why you think it.
- Do you think the author is credible and reliable? Use at least one
specific example to explain why. Make sure to explain the principle
of rhetoric or logic that makes this passage credible.
- How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and
values of our age? Offer two specific examples.
- What presumptions and preconceptions do we as readers bring to bear
on this text? For instance, what portions of the text might we find
objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable.
State the values we hold on that subject, and the values expressed in
the text. Cite at least one specific example.
- How might the difference between our values and the values of the
author influence the way we understand the text? Explain how such a
difference in values might lead us to mis-interpret the text, or understand
it in a way contemporaries would not have. Offer at least one specific
- How might this text support one of the arguments found in secondary
sources we've read? Choose a paragraph anywhere in a secondary source
we've read, state where this text might be an appropriate footnote (cite
page and paragraph), and explain why.
- What kinds of information does this text reveal that it does not
seemed concerned with revealing? (In other words, what does it tell
us without knowing it's telling us?)
- Offer one claim from the text which is the author's interpretation.
Now offer one example of a historical "fact" (something that is absolutely
indisputable) that we can learn from this text (this need not be the
Relate: Now choose another of the readings, and compare
the two, answering these questions:
- What patterns or ideas are repeated throughout the readings?
- What major differences appear in them?
- Which do you find more reliable and credible?
II. Here are some additional concepts that will help you evaluate primary
- Texts and documents, authors and creators: You'll see these phrases
a lot. I use the first two and the last two as synonyms. Texts are
historical documents, authors their creators, and vice versa. "Texts"
and "authors" are often used when discussing literature, while "documents"
and "creators" are more familiar to historians.
- Evaluating the veracity (truthfulness) of texts: For the rest of
this discussion, consider the example of a soldier who committed atrocities
against non-combatants during wartime. Later in his life, he writes
a memoir that neglects to mention his role in these atrocities, and
may in fact blame them on someone else. Knowing the soldier's possible
motive, we would be right to question the veracity of his account.
- The credible vs. the reliable text:
- Reliability refers to our ability to trust the consistency
of the author's account of the truth. A reliable text displays a
pattern of verifiable truth-telling that tends to render
the unverifiable parts of the text true. For instance, the soldier
above may prove to be utterly reliable in detailing the campaigns
he participated in during the war, as evidence by corroborating
records. The only gap in his reliability may be the omission of
details about the atrocities he committed.
- Credibility refers to our ability to trust the author's
account of the truth on the basis of her or his tone and reliability.
An author who is inconsistently truthful -- such as the soldier
in the example above -- loses credibility. There are many other
ways authors undermine their credibility. Most frequently, they
convey in their tone that they are not neutral (see below). For
example, the soldier above may intersperse throughout his reliable
account of campaign details vehement and racist attacks against
his old enemy. Such attacks signal readers that he may have an interest
in not portraying the past accurately, and hence may undermine his
credibility, regardless of his reliability.
- An author who seems quite credible may be utterly unreliable.
The author who takes a measured, reasoned tone and anticipates counter-arguments
may seem to be very credible, when in fact he presents us with complete
balderdash. Similarly, a reliable author may not always seem credible.
It should also be clear that individual texts themselves may have
portions that are more reliable and credible than others.
- The objective vs. the neutral text: We often wonder if the author
of a text has an "ax to grind" which might render her or his words
- Neutrality refers to the stake an author has in a text.
In the example of the soldier who committed wartime atrocities,
the author seems to have had a considerable stake in his memoir,
which was the expunge his own guilt. In an utterly neutral document,
the creator is not aware that she or he has any special stake in
the construction and content of the document. Very few texts are
ever completely neutral. People generally do not go to the trouble
to record their thoughts unless they have a purpose or design which
renders them invested in the process of creating the text. Some
historical texts, such as birth records, may appear to be more neutral
than others, because their creators seem to have had less of a stake
in creating them. (For instance, the county clerk who signed several
thousand birth certificates likely had less of a stake in creating
an individual birth certificate than did a celebrity recording her
life in a diary for future publication as a memoir.)
- Objectivity refers to an author's ability to convey the
truth free of underlying values, cultural presuppositions, and biases.
Many scholars argue that no text is or ever can be completely objective,
for all texts are the products of the culture in which their authors
lived. Many authors pretend to objectivity when they might better
seek for neutrality. The author who claims to be free of bias and
presupposition should be treated with suspicion: no one is free
of their values. The credible author acknowledges and expresses
those values so that they may accounted for in the text where they
- Epistemology: a fancy word for a straight-forward concept. "Epistemology"
is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge.
How do you know what you know? What is the truth, and how is it determined?
For historians who read primary sources, the question becomes: what
can I know of the past based on this text, how sure can I be about
it, and how do I know these things?
- This can be an extremely difficult question. Ultimately, we cannot
know anything with complete assurance, because even our senses may
fail us. Yet we can conclude, with reasonable accuracy, that some
things are more likely to be true than others (for instance, it
is more likely that the sun will rise tomorrow than that a human
will learn to fly without wings or other support). Your task as
a historian is to make and justify decisions about the
relative veracity of historical texts, and portions of them. To
do this, you need a solid command of the principles of sound reasoning.