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Analyzing Primary Sources

Analyzing Primary Sources

Doing research using primary sources is a bit different from secondary source research. This type of inquiry can be challenging but allows you to conduct your own analysis of the evidence of a topic or event to draw your own theories and conclusions, rather than relying on interpretations provided. by others. Analyzing primary sources can also help you understand how complex and interconnected the events of the past can be, and help to develop your critical thinking and analysis skills.

The method you use, and the questions you ask, may differ from other researchers, based on the type of material and the topic in question, but will be related both to understanding the object itself, as well as the context in which it was created. 

Sample questions: 

Some questions you might ask while analyzing primary sources are as follows, though this is not a comprehensive list:

  • What is the document?
  • Who created it?
  • When and where was it created? 
  • What was the original purpose?
  • What kind of information or evidence does it contain?
  • What does the format, or materials used in its construction, say about the document?
  • Why and how was the document preserved? By who? For who?
  • What other documents, data, or other information might give this further context?
  • How does the information this document provides align with or contradict other documents or secondary sources? 
  • What conclusions can be drawn based on the document?
  • What further research is necessary to confirm your conclusions?

For more questions, have a look at the Carleton College Department of HIstory guide on How to Analyze a Primary Source.

Remember:

All sources must be considered critically, and any attitudes, understanding, experience, intentions, and prejudices of the creator should be taken into consideration.

Resources for analysis:

There are a variety of tools available to assist you with organizing and evaluating the primary sources you have access for your research. the tool that is best for you will depend on the type of research, and the type of sources you are analyzing. Select the one that works best for you, or create your using the elements that work best from several tools. 

Download the Ryerson University Library Material analysis sheet

National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets (by media)

Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tools

EJ Pratt Library - University of Toronto 

Creative Commons License

This guide has been created by the Ryerson University Library and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License unless otherwise marked.

Creative Commons Attribution License