Mastering the Past: Essential Techniques for Analyzing Historical Sources


Student reading in library analyzing sources main

Source analysis examines historical sources with a critical eye and determines their value as evidence for historical events and developments. Primary sources are firsthand accounts. Secondary sources analyze and discuss primary sources. Historians examine historical context, audience, purpose, perspective (P.O.V.), and why a source remains significant (H.A.P.P.Y.). Careful reading is fundamental to source analysis. The meaning of sources can be explicit (out in the open) or implicit (implied). No one has all the answers. 

Analyzing Sources 

Baseball analysts interpret the game. If we analyze something, we examine it in detail. We explain and interpret. A good baseball analyst is a careful critical thinker.

Sources are documents and objects that provide information. Books, websites, articles, movies, speeches, and cartoons are written and visual sources. Paintings and sculptures also can be sources. If we want to know how someone looks, a painting would help us find out.

Analyzing sources is a technique to determine the value of information. A good historian carefully examines their material. What is its true nature? How does each piece fit? 

Primary v. Secondary 

A primary source is a firsthand account. The author or creator was there when it happened. 

This does not mean that they created the materials when the events happened. A Civil War veteran who wrote an autobiography decades after the war is writing a primary source. 

Some examples of primary sources are autobiographies, laws, letters and journals, photographs, and original works of art. A work of fiction (Frankenstein) can be a primary source. 

A secondary source is about primary sources. We view events through the eyes of another person. A secondary source can live at the same time as primary sources. An author can write about persons or events that occur in their lifetimes. 

Some examples of secondary sources are biographies, websites about historical events the person did not take part in, film reviews, and legal or political commentaries. This website is a secondary source except when we specifically discuss our personal experiences

A third type of source, tertiary sources, are collections of materials. Tertiary sources include bibliographies (lists of books), books of quotations, directories, and indexes.  

H.A.P.P.Y. 

The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A happy historian carefully analyzes their sources. Let us break that down!

Historical context is a political, social, cultural, and economic setting for a particular document, idea, or event. The Declaration of Independence references sensitive subjects, including Native Americans and slavery. It was a product of its time. 

The audience of a source is the primary people who will read, view, or watch it. The author will carefully craft their work with these people in mind. A scholarly work appeals to a select expert group. An opinion piece tries to convince or motivate certain people. 

The purpose is the reason behind the source. A newspaper article can provide basic information. An op-ed persuades. The op-ed is not merely factual. There is more of a chance that the source is misleading propaganda. A partisan newspaper can have misleading articles.  

A perspective is a point of view. What is the background and knowledge of the source? Does the person have a bias that clouds their judgment? A religious group creating a collection of essays will selectively choose. A point of view is not a lie. It can be incomplete and misleading. 

The main idea of a source provides the “why.” The purpose provides the motivation. The “why” provides the meaning of the source. How does it advance your argument when you are writing a historical essay? Why is a letter, film, or painting still relevant today?  

Some Additional Lessons 

Careful reading of sources is fundamental. We often multitask, skimming the news while watching television. A close analysis of sources is necessary to obtain complete understanding. 

Try to find out the date of the source. Is the source timely? Does the source discuss events that occurred a long time ago? A historian might write about the past to inform the present. For instance, the play The Crucible is a metaphor for McCarthyism, which was then taking place.

Explicit and implicit information is available. Certain information is out in the open. We can find the author, date, and what information is included and left out. The author can explain their purpose. Sometimes, we have to research to obtain historical context and other information.

Nonetheless, we can often only obtain information by inference. What does the person leave out? The Federalist Papers promote the ratification of the Constitution. They leave out or underplay certain flaws. Writing style, camera angles (what is left out? emphasized?), and other things provide hints and clues. A good historian acts like a detective. 

Expect to be unsatisfied. Source analysis asks about origins, perspectives, context, audience, and motive. These questions will help you understand your sources. They will show how a source will fit in with others to build arguments and information. All extremely helpful.

Nonetheless, sources will not provide all the answers. Consider the information available. Do the best you can. Even Sherlock Holmes can only do so much.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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