Anything written in the past can constitute an historical document or “text,” whether it is a letter, diary, shopping list, literary text, memo, novel, film, charter, or act of parliament. Although the form and content of documents may vary, there are certain questions that can be asked of any document to facilitate analysis. It is important to ask the right questions and to make the right assumptions. Rather than simply reading the document, examine it closely to find the clues that are contained within it. The questions from the tabs above will help you analyse any document to get a complete picture of its subject matter, period, message, significance, etc.
HINT: Check out a reference book such as an historical dictionary or encyclopaedia for general information about major individuals and organizations. These books will also point you towards key books and articles about these topics. See the TRU Library’s History Research Guides for suggested reference books. Depending on the topic, a Wikipedia article may also be a place to check out.
Figure out when a document was created. It is important to be able to place the creation of the document on a mental timeline in relation to the events you’re researching.
When documents are undated, there are a variety of clues that allow an approximate date to be determined. These clues include names and events mentioned (and not mentioned), the form of the document, the style of the handwriting, and the language / phraseology used. Sometimes it is possible to say that a text must have been written after a certain date (terminus post quem) or before another date (terminus ante quem). Often it is possible only to say that the date is approximately or around such and such a date (circa written as c.).
HINT: A useful guide for dating documents is C.R.Cheney's Handbook of Dates for Students of English History (DA 34 .H29 1995). Unfortunately, the TRU Library does not have an equivalent resource for North American history.
TIP: Write down who the creator was and what they were trying to convey with the document. Consider why they wrote it and who they were trying to reach. How does this help you understand the document better?
In other words, what is this document about? What is the source telling you about the topic you're researching? Remember that the “story” might be simple, but its meaning might be complicated.
HINT : Take notes or underline/highlight important places in the text. Keep asking yourself:
For Written or Audio Documents:
Picture or Moving Image:
TIP: Write down your thoughts and the answers to the questions that you have asked yourself.
|Can you believe this document?|
HINT: Locate books and articles on the author, the subject, the event(s), and/or the era to help you analyze the document. The more you know about the subject, the better able you are to analyse it completely. To find books, check out Discover and limit your search to books and eBooks. To find articles, you can use Discover and limit your search to academic articles, or, you can use one of the library's article databases (e.g., Historical Abstracts or America: History and Life). Not too sure which article database to use? See the TRU Library's History Research Guides for suggestions.
Note: Look at the publication date. How old is this item? Keep in mind, however, that an old publication date is not necessarily an item to avoid. It might be the classic source on the topic. Try to balance classics with recent scholarship.
Remember that modern terms and terms used in the past often differ. When you are looking for information, try both the modern and the historical way to say something (e.g., Indigenous and Indians). Being culturally sensitive will not help you locate information; it may hinder you research. Think of a broader way of looking at something. For example, don't just look for “The Battle of the Plains of Abraham” because a book on the “Seven Years War” will have information on this topic, too.
HINT: Resist the temptation to jump from step one to step three, to start in the middle, or to pose the questions randomly. If you develop the discipline of asking your questions in the proper order, you will be able to gain command of a document more quickly and efficiently. And, don't limit yourself to these questions; other questions might come to mind when you are reading a document that would also be useful in your analysis.
If you are just analysing one primary source for an assignment, this step may not be necessary beyond how the source relates to secondary sources.
But if you are using multiple primary sources, compare the information in this source to the information gathered from other sources. Do they contradict each other, or are their accounts consistent with each other? If there are contradictions, can they be reconciled? How can you sort them out? Does one source seem more credible to you than another one? Why?
You will probably need to do some library research using secondary sources to get background information and to answer some of the questions that will inevitably crop up. You can use the list of names, places, terms, events, etc.
Goldberg, P.J.P. “How to Read a Document.” University of York . Available from htttp://www.york.ac.uk/teaching/history/pjpg/document.htm. Internet. Acessed 15 August 2005.
Kishlansky, Mark A. "How to Read a Document." In Sources of the West: Readings in Western Civilization , 4th ed., Vol II: From 1660 to the Present edited by Mark A. Kishlansky. New York : Longman, 2001.
Sterk, Andrea. “How to Read a Document.” University of Florida . Available from http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/sterk/junsem/reading.html. Internet. Accessed 15 August 2005.