In history, a primary source is one that gives first-hand information about a time period. It may be an eyewitness account, a photograph, a film, or a poster or document that dates from the time you are studying.

Here is a list of some of the main questions to think about when you are working with documents. Most of these questions can be applied to any of the primary sources mentioned above.

Identification

  • What type of document is it?
  • Who produced it? Do you know anything about the author/creator?
  • When was it written/produced?
  • Why was it written/produced?

Understanding

  • Consider the key words and their meaning within the source.
  • What points or arguments are made in the source?
  • What values or attitudes does the content of the source reflect?
  • How does the content of the source relate to a given historical situation?
  • Are there any clues about the intended audience for the source?
  • How reliable is the source and does it have any limitations?
  • How does it relate to other sources from this period? Does it share the same ideas, attitudes and arguments? How would you explain any differences between these sources?