How to Analyze a Primary Source

Article objectives

  • To learn how to read and analyze historic primary source documents.
  • Primary Sources

    What is a primary source, and why does anyone care? Those are the first and most important questions that a young historian must answer before they can start working with primary sources. So let’s answer them.

    A primary source is a piece of historic evidence created or produced during the time that is being studied. Primary sources are a great resource for historians because they can tell us what life was like at the time of the source’s creation – or at least what the creator thought it was like. Cartoons, television shows, newspaper articles, speeches, books, art, and film are all examples of primary sources. A secondary source by contrast is a person’s second hand interpretation and analysis of a time period or a primary source. Textbooks, and journal articles are great examples of secondary sources. Both types of sources are tremendously helpful for historians, but primary sources are especially important for uncovering new information about the past.

    Don’t believe me? It’s true. Artifacts from the past can tell us a lot about the culture and society they come from. Here is an awesome example:

    The image above is the cover of Captain America issue number 1. Take a look. This seemingly simple comic book written for children reveals a great deal about American culture – as do many comic books. Let’s try examining the document.

    First, what do you see? Clearly this is a comic book depicting the character of Captain America fighting the Nazi’s. Clearly he is doing a good job since he has just punched Hitler in the face. Within the Nazi stronghold it is clear that the Nazi’s were planning an invasion of America. On the far wall is a live feed of a Nazi operative bombing a US munitions factory and on the table next to Hitler is a map of the US and a little book called “Plans for the USA.” What this image seems to show is a Nazi plan to invade the United States and the importance of US military involvement to fight the Nazi’s.

    Given our knowledge that America did get involved in WW2 and were strong opponents of the Nazi’s, the content of this document may seem unsurprising. However, take a look at the date of the comic. The comic, issue 1, is dated March on the front cover (the inside cover reveals the issue date of March 1941). That means this comic book came out a full 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). That a children’s comic book would come out in support of entering the war while the majority of Americans still opposed the idea reveals something new about American society. Americans it seems were not as unanimous as they appeared at first glance.

    Captain America creator Jack Kirby – aka Jacob Kurtzberg – was just one of the many Americans who was especially sensitive to the activities of the Nazi party. Being a Jewish American, Kirby was strongly in support of war against the Nazis even before war officially broke out. His character of Captain America was therefore very conscious of the war effort and was constantly fighting Nazi foes. Kirby was not alone in his support of the war and his comic book reveals a large population concerned about rising Nazism and willing to stand against it.

    Historian Bradford Wright, whose book Comic Book Nation discusses the importance of comic books in American society, claims that “in these garish comic book images, one glimpses a crude, exaggerated, and absurd caricature of the American experience tailored for young tastes” (Wright, xiv.)

    How to Analyze a Primary Source

    As you can see from above, the ability to analyze sources is an extremely important tool in the historian’s pocket. So you must learn how to go about analyzing sources on your own. Whenever you are faced with a new source, there are certain questions you must ask:

    1. What is the document?
    2. When is the document from?
    3. Where is the document from?
    4. Whose speech does the document represent?
    5. Who is the document addressed to?
    6. What does the document say?
    7. What potential sources of Bias does the document contain?
    8. What lessons does the document teach you?

    What is the document? Usually this question is the easiest to answer, so it’s the best starting place. The question ‘what is the document’ covers the medium and title of the document. For the example used above the document is a Captain America comic book – Captain America No. 1.

    When is the document from? Again this question is straightforward but involved – when was the document produced and what was the context in which it was created?

    Where is the document from? What specific country was the document created in? Was the document created about an event in a different company?

    Whose speech does the document represent? This is the first hard question, because the answer isn’t always straight forward. The document in question may have been created by a single person, or by a group of people. Or, it may have been created on behalf of a group of people. Take for example political ads. Some of the ads are created by the candidate, some are created by a group the candidate is part of, and some may have been created by a third party speaking for the candidate. In these cases the issue of ‘whose speech’ the ad represents becomes a factor. Take the more concrete example of Captain America No. 1. The comic was written by Jack Kirby, but produced by Timely Comics, so whose speech is it. It is certainly Jack Kirby’s, but is it also Timely Comic’s? Does Kirby speak for the comic book industry or just the company? Furthermore, the comic was read by millions of American children, does that mean it represents their opinions too? These questions aren’t easy to grapple with, but must be considered when analyzing a document.

    Who is the document addressed to? This oft overlooked aspect of document analysis is extremely important, because it changes the message and tone of a document. Suppose you are looking at a political speech, the audience of that speech will change the contents of it. If the speech was given at an inauguration, then it was likely designed to fit a large audience. The messages contained in it are likely to be broad and general. The more controversial claims are likely to be left out.

    What does the document say? Depending on the document at hand, answering this question may be easier said than done. Some documents are very straightforward, whereas others are very misleading. Often, a document’s author may have been saying exactly what they meant, but in many cases the author is less clear. They say an image is worth a thousand words, but sometimes an image based document can leave you speechless. Ultimately, it is up to you as a historian to decipher the documents meaning. It helps to read the document multiple times, or study the image very carefully looking for all the possible clues. Think always about what the document is saying to its audience, and also what it says to you as a historian.

    What potential sources of Bias does the document contain? Bias is prejudice for or against a certain person, group, viewpoint etc. and it often appears in historical documents. Human beings are often biased about one thing or another, and it is you job as a historian to identify any potential bias in the document you are analyzing. The presence of bias can alter the reliability of a document – the creator may not be lying, but their version of the truth may not be as accurate as an unbiased observer.

    What lessons does the document teach you? It’s important to remember that historical documents don’t exist in a vacuum – and your teacher or exam board isn’t just making you analyze these documents because they can. The analysis of historical documents is useful because it can reveal new information about the past, or because it can be used as evidence to support an argument about some historical topic. So, always explain what the document teaches you and you’ll be able to get the most out of source analysis.

    Image courtesy of:

    Kirby, Jack. Captain America no. 1, "Meet Captain America" March 1941