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Evaluating Primary Sources

How to use sources of information created at the time under study

Published onDec 25, 2020
Evaluating Primary Sources

Primary sources are sources of information—documents, manuscripts, recordings, letters, artworks, birth records, tax receipts, etc.— that were created at the time under study. Primary sources do not speak for themselves, they cannot be taken directly at face value. Instead they must be carefully evaluated following the five steps identified by Dr. Sam Wineburg of Stanford University.

1. Sourcing

The act of looking first to the source of the document before reading the text:

  • Who wrote this document, when and where?

  • What type of document is it and why did the author write it?

  • Who is the intended audience?

  • Is the document trustworthy? Why? Why not?

2. Contextualization

The act of locating a document in a time and place to understand how these factors shape its content:

  • When and where was the document created?

  • How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?

3. Close Reading

The act of analyzing how an author communicates their ideas and/or persuades their audience:

  • What claims does the author make?

  • What evidence does the author use?

  • What language (words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience?

  • How does the document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?

4. Reading for Silences

The act of identifying what has been left out or is missing from a particular account. This may include, but is not limited to context, historical information, and the voices and perspectives of different social groups.

  • What is the document’s author not mentioning?

  • Whose voices are we not hearing in the document?

  • Which perspectives are missing?

5. Corroboration

The act of comparing documents with one another for the purpose of checking important details against each other before accepting them as plausible or likely.

  • What questions arise after careful reading of the document?

  • Do other sources corroborate or refute this interpretation?

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