Primary sources are the raw materials of research - original, uninterpreted information. A primary source on its own is likely only a snippet or snapshot of the full picture; thus it is often difficult to interpret without additional context. The following group activity will give you an opportunity to (1) practice analyzing a primary source document and (2) contextualize it using tertiary source research.
When analyzing a primary source, ask yourself these questions:
- Who created this document? What can you surmise about the author's/group's identity, political aims, predominant race, socioeconomic class, gender, etc? What is their affiliation? Are they associated with a specific group or movement? What is at stake for the author of this text?
- Why did they write it? What is the specific event, initiative, and/or project in which the source was written, read, and circulated? Can you tell the intended audience? Was it intended to be objective or persuasive? What evidence in the text tells you this?
- When was it written? What is going on in the world, the country, the region, or the locality when this was created?
- How was the text physically produced? How was is published or circulated? Who had access to this source?
- What information does this document provide? What do you notice first? How reliable is the evidence? Are the important points covered? How does the source compare to other similar sources? What, if any, are the limitations of this source? What may have been left out?
- What unspoken assumptions does the text contain? What kind of knowledge is being challenged? What kinds of claims are being made? What was the larger influence of this text (and/or the author/group)?
- What presumptions do you as a reader bring to bear on this text?
You may not be able to address all of these questions in your analysis, but start by writing down a few points that you find interesting or important.
"Ida," a member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Lavender Menace, 1970. Photograph by Diana Davies. NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Diana Davies Papers. Copyright Diana Davies. Digital ID: 1582182