Anything written in the past can constitute an historical document or “text,” whether it is a letter, diary, shopping list, literary text, memo, novel, film, charter, or act of parliament.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.
HINT: A useful guide for dating documents is C.R.Cheney's Handbook of Dates for Students of English History (DA 34 .H29 1995 Stacks KAM). Unfortunately, the TRU Library does not have an equivalent resource for North American history.
HINT : Take notes or underline/highlight important places in the text. Keep asking yourself:
• “What's going on here?
• “So what? Why is this important?”
• “How can this be interpreted?
|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 the TRU Library catalogue. To find articles, use one of the library's article databases. 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., First Nations 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.
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.