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A Step-by-Step Guide to Primary Source Analysis

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Primary source analysis is exactly what it sounds like: an analysis of a primary source.

You probably heard the term “primary source” often in school. It’s referred to as a first-hand experience or account of an event, person, or object.

An audio recording of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech where he’s famously quoted saying “I have a dream” is a first-hand account. It’s his words recorded from his mouth. Someone else who quotes it would be a secondary source.

Primary sources are critical to research. It’s beneficial to understand how to do primary source analysis and justify the source correctly.

1. Start simple

Begin by answering a few basic questions.

What type of source is it? Primary sources can be letters, diary entries, data entries, interviews, or even photographs.

Next, who created it? Self-explanatory: put down the name of the author or person who provided the primary source.

When was it created? Again, quite simple. Write down the date the primary source was created. It may be difficult to know the exact date depending on the source.

2. The context

What led the author to develop this primary source? It might be a significant event in history. Or it could be a series of circumstances. It could even be because of a coincidence. Whichever the reason write it down.

Think of it like this: the person created the content because X event was taking place and he needed to contact Y with Z information.

3. Who is it for?

You may have already done so in the previous step, making this part easier to do. But it’s relatively straightforward. Who was the piece created for?

Letters are often addressed to one person. Diary entries are often directed to no one in particular. If it’s not directly obvious, consider who it could’ve been for.

4. A quick summary

Now address what the key points of the source were.

If it’s a longer entry, try to pick out critical pieces of information that sum up the piece. Try to answer what someone, who knows nothing about the source, needs to know to understand its significance.

Keep that in mind while you dissect the article.

5. Reliability

A primary source must be reliable. But it’s not enough to say that it is.

State how it is reliable (what makes it a primary source) and then explain why it’s significant. Such as: It’s a reliable source as it was created by X during a critical time and has been verified by Y group. It’s significant because…

Consider how it helps to understand the topic at hand. If it doesn’t address anything key within the topic, it may be reliable but not significant. If this is the case, rethink the primary source.

The significance part can be determined from step 3.

6. Question everything

While you answer the above questions, stop and think. Does any of it not make sense?

This can help with reflection or bring an extra level of research to the analysis. Write down your thoughts as you read through the primary source as well. They may come in handy later.

At this point, the primary source analysis has completed. It can be as extensive as you deem fit. So long as you have followed the above steps and answered them to prove reliability and significance, your work here is done.

Each step should be repeated for every additional primary source you have.

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