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Using Primary Sources: How do I use a primary source?

This LibGuide is designed to provide students with a basic introduction to primary sources and to give them some places to begin locating primary source documents.

How do I evaluate a primary source? (Part 1)

When conducting research, your teachers expect you to evalaute all of your sources carefully to be certain you've got current, accurate, and objective information.  

Just as with secondary sources, primary sources can be biased or skewed based on the author's perspective.  But primary sources can also come with other pitfalls.  So, in addition to the basic source evaluation, when you're using primary sources you need to ask some additional questions.

Evaluating a primary source -- questions to ask before reading:

  1. What type of source is it?
  2. Who created it?  Is the author/creator reliable?  Did the author/creator have first-hand information available?  What is his/her relationship to the event documented?
  3. Is the source genuine?  How do you know?  When, where, and how was it created?
  4. Who was the intended audience?  How do you know?  How was this material presented to its original audience?
  5. What was the creator's purpose in creating this source?  How do you know?  
  6. What questions remain about this source?

Examples include:

This Medieval manuscript and others like it.

How do I evaluate a primary source? (Part 2)

Evaluating a primary source -- questions to ask after reading:

  1. Who is each person mentioned in the document? What is his/her role in the event?  What is his/her relationship with the author?
  2. What is the meaning and purpose of the source?
  3. Are you sure that you understand all words and phrases -- especially those that might have meant something different for the author?
  4. Do you understand the allusions which the author assumes his/her the audience will understand?
  5. What author bias needs to be addressed?
  6. How does this source contribute to your research?
  7. How do the contents of this source fit together with other sources about this topic?  Are there sources which corroborate the information presented in your primary source?  Are there sources with conflicting information?
  8. What questions does the source raise?  What don't you know about this source? 
  9. What other reliable sources might help answer your questions about this source?