A primary source is a first-hand account an event. Examples include newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, sketches, music, and court case records. Historians, students, and professional researchers must analyze primary sources carefully since they are usually a record of only a single person’s experience.
Read any introductory material that accompanies the document.
If you have found a primary source in an archive or online, there may be a short summary of the document set. If you are reading a primary source that your teacher or professor gave you, there may be a paragraph of introductory material. If there is no introductory material at all, pay close attention to the title, author, and date.
For example, if your textbook contains a diary entry from a Southern slaveholder written in 1840, perhaps the introductory material tells you how many slaves he held or where his plantation was.
Primary sources are often very dense, and many are full of jargon. Sometimes, especially if you are working with an older document, you will run into words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you. Summarizing as you read will help you keep track of what the document is saying. Jot down a short 5-10 word summary at the end of every paragraph or at least every section (if it’s a longer text).
Maybe the slaveholder’s diary begins with a paragraph all about the crops he is planning to plant this year. Your summary could simply say, “Crops = tobacco, wheat, corn.”
Bullet points, keywords, and lists are a great way to do this.
Re-copying lengthy text directly into the margins is probably not that helpful.
Consider a quick sketch in lieu of a written summary. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Venn diagrams, charts, stick figures, etc. are great.
If something doesn’t make sense, write down your question about it. If an element of the text leaves you wanting to know more, write down your question about it.
If you come to a section in the slaveholder’s diary about one of his slaves falling ill, you might write, “Who is in charge of health on this plantation? Slaves? Or the wife of the slaveholder?”
It’s important to put the document in the context of other things you know. You can try to make connections to other texts, lectures (especially if you’re analyzing the source for a class), your own life, or current events.
Perhaps you saw the movie, Twelve Years a Slave. The slaveholder’s diary reminds you of a scene from the movie. Jot down the title of the movie and perhaps a short description of the scene.
Texts always have implied meanings. Read “between the lines” and write down your speculations and conclusions.
If the slaveholder’s diary included a paragraph about his son and daughter, and how he worries about his daughter finding a husband but is happy that he will be able to provide for his son, you might infer that his son will inherit the plantation. In the margins, make a note of your inference: “Son will probably inherit from father.”
Write down anything else you thought of while reading the document.
Remember that there is really no wrong way to annotate. The idea is to get all of your thoughts and questions about a document down on paper.
Write down any immediately apparent biases you see.
Biases are prejudices for or against people or things. Every primary source has an element of bias to it. Literally no source ever created has NO bias. If the author is making sweeping generalizations about a group of people, you should note that they appear to have a bias for or against this group. If you don’t notice any biases immediately, move on. They may be tricky to find at first.
For example, if the slaveholder notes in his diary that “all African slaves” look, feel, or behave a certain way, you should note the racial bias in the source. Then you should look carefully for other elements of racial bias.
Finding bias doesn’t mean that you will need to throw out the source and not use it. Instead, it means that you will need to think critically about what this source tells you about its creator.
Compare the primary source to secondary sources.
Think about what you have read textbooks or heard in lectures on topics related to your primary source. Ask yourself, “What, if anything, seems untrue/unlikely/unclear/unbelievable about this source?” and “How does this compare with what I know from other sources? Does it support those sources or contradict them?”
Perhaps an entry in the slaveholder’s diary mentions that all of his slaves are in good health are rarely ever ill. Check your textbook and lecture notes to learn about the healthcare provided to slaves on antebellum plantations. Does his entry seem accurate? Could he be an exception to the rule, or does he have some reason to write untrue statements?
Think about who the author is.
Consider their gender, race, class, career, location, etc. Do any of these factors make you feel skeptical about the trustworthiness of the source?
For example, a white Southern slaveholder writing about his slaves in 1840 was likely writing with some element of racism and racial bias. As an elite male, he would also have a class and gender bias. Keep these biases in mind as you read. Even if you determine that what the slaveholder says about his slaves is not reliable information, you can still learn about the slaveholder himself based on what he writes.
Consider the author’s purpose and intended audience.
Especially think about their motives and whether that might have influenced what they wrote.
Maybe you learned in class that, in the 1800s, diaries had a different purpose than they do today. Rather than a record of private thoughts, they were written for public consumption after the death of the author. With that in mind, you might consider that the slaveholder wanted to paint a rosy picture in his diary. Ask yourself
Who created the source and why?
Was it created through a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
Does the creator of the source speak for a larger group of people or just for themself?
Did the creator wish to inform or persuade others? (Look closely the words in the source. The word choices may tell you whether the creator was trying to be objective or persuasive.)
Did the creator have reasons to be honest or dishonest?
Was the source meant to be public or private?
Consider when the source was written.
Sometimes, if a primary source was created even a little while after an event occurred, a person looking back on the event will have a different perspective than they would have had they created a source during an event.
An entry in a slaveholder’s diary about what he did yesterday is likely to be more factually accurate than an entry reminiscing about his childhood.
Analyze the overall reliability.
Remember that even if you determine that an author probably had reason to be untruthful, the source may still be useful.
For example, though you may not learn true facts about the lives of Southern slaves by reading an 1840 diary of a slaveholder, you can learn about racial biases (of white slaveholders) in 1840.
Think about how a scholar might use this source.
What kind of research/topics would it be helpful for? What might a scholar have to be careful about if they were using this source?
A slaveholder’s diary would be very useful to someone writing about the ideas and ideals of 19th century Southern gentry. It might even be useful to someone tracing the history of slavewomen’s participation in plantation healthcare, but a person studying that topic would have to be very careful to note and account for the slaveholder’s biases.
Write or speak about the source.
Whether you were analyzing a primary source for a class discussion, an essay, or for your own personal use, you can use what you learned about the reliability of the source to write or speak about it in a more informed way. As you write or speak, note the possible biases and discuss how the source may still be useful.
You might write, ”Though some Southern slaveholders claimed that their workforce was always in good health, diary entries from some plantation owners indicate that contagious diseases frequently ran rampant through slave quarters.”