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History - Historical documents : how to read them


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Brenda Smith
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Anything written in the past can constitute an historical document or “text,” whether it is a letter, diary, shopping list, literary text, memo, novel, film, charter, or act of parliament.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.


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"Historical Documents: How to Read Them" by Brenda Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).

STEP ONE: Identify the document's basic components

Who wrote the document?

  • Documents were created by individuals in a specific historical setting for a particular purpose. Until you know who created the document, you cannot know why it was created or what meanings its author intended by creating it. Sometimes you can figure out who the author was by the document itself.
  • Was the document written by an individual or by a group (e.g., a political body, government body, other type of organisation)?
    • Individual: What was the author’s name, position (office, title), social class, education, nationality or ethnicity, religion, political leanings, and anything else that might "explain" him or her? What do you know about their position in relation to the events you’re researching? If it is a famous person, answering this secondary question may be easy. But if the person was not well known, you may have to get clues by examining the document carefully and/or doing some further research
    • Group author: What was the composition of the group? What was its purpose? What ideas did the group support? If the item was written by committee, it implies that the body made revisions and amendments before it was completed. Such authorship suggests a wide degree of support and probably more than one compromise between those wanting either stronger or weaker statements
  • Is it a translation? If so, who translated it? Could the translator have used certain words that might have changed the meaning of the original document? Does it seem likely that the translation an accurate depiction of what the author intended?

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.

When and where was the document written?


  • 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.).

  • The best primary source is often that which is composed closest in time to the event described. Memories of recent events tend to be clearer than those of events long past. Many men and women write their memoirs later in life, when their memories may be be fading and/or when they may be seeking to portray their actions in a more positive light, so these may be less valuable than contemporary letters. On the other hand, sometimes time gives more time for reflection and insight.


  • Knowing the place (i.e., where) a document was created also helps understand the context in which the document was created. Try to figure out, with as much specificity as possible, where it was created.
  • The location may not always be relevant, but it might suggest something about the author and/or when it was published. For example, a 1950s treatise about Communism written in the Soviet Union may have a very different agenda or political viewpoint from one written in the United States during the same era.

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.

Who was the document's intended audience?

  • The relationship between author and audience will tell you much about the purpose of the document. Knowing the intended audience determines your view of what to expect from the document. It will tell you what to expect in the author's use of language, the amount of knowledge that the writer assumes the audience has, and the form that the document takes. Ask yourself, what audience or recipient were they trying to reach? For what purpose? What do you know about this audience or reader, and how they may have understood the document? Consider the point of view of the creator. What was their stake in making the document?
  • Is the intended audience the author himself or herself (e.g., private diary), one other person (e.g., a private letter), a particular group (e.g., an organizational newsletter), or the general public (e.g., a speech, a government report, a letter to the newspaper, or a book)? Or, it could be addressed to more than one audience. For example, a private letter to an individual that the author knows may eventually be published or a report for one person that the author expects to be passed on to others in an organisation. How does the audience(s) affect the nature of the document?

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?

What is the story line?

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:

  • “What's going on here?
  • “So what? Why is this important?”
  • “How can this be interpreted?

For Written or Audio Documents:

  • Read through or listen to the document carefully. What does it say? What information does it provide about your topic that you didn’t know before?  What language are they using - formal? informal? For audio documents, also listen to the tone of voice of the speakers. For both print and audio, be sure to pay attention to what you don’t understand – terms, people, places, events that you don’t recognize, etc.

Picture or Moving Image:

  • Examine it carefully. What is represented (and not represented)? If there are people in the picture what are they doing? Are they posing for the picture? What is the relationship between the artist/photographer and the subject? What places, buildings, natural surroundings, signs, or other objects are in the picture? What was going on when the picture was taken (drawn, painted, videotaped, etc.). The same questions also apply for moving images, but also look at the body language of the speaker and tone of voice. For both, be sure to pay attention to what you don’t recognize: buildings, objects, people, etc.

TIP: Write down your thoughts and the answers to the questions that you have asked yourself.

STEP TWO: Probe behind the facts

What was the purpose of the document? Why was it written?

  • Everything is written for a reason; every author has some sort of agenda which shapes the document's content and tone. Is the document's purpose to convince the audience to act a certain way or believe a certain idea? To spur conversation? To motivate? To persuade? To entertain? Etc.
  • What strategies does the author employ to achieve his or her purpose? Humour? Logic? Emotional appeals?

What type of document is this?

  • The form and genre of the document reflects its purpose. Examine the document's presentation. How is it organized? For example, letters usually contain a greeting (e.g., Dear Bob), a complimentary close (e.g., Cordially,) and a signature. Is the document's organization formal or informal? Is the language formal or informal? Is it written in legal language?

What are the basic assumptions made in this document?

Can you believe this document?
  • Every author has a point of view, and exposing the assumptions of the document is an essential task for the reader. Ask yourself, “Is this a likely story?” Why or why not?” How reliable is this document? What are its limitations, biases or blind spots?

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.

What can you learn about the society that produced this document?

  • Societal or cultural values are not static; today's views on a subject are often very different from those of the past. All documents reveal information about the authors and the era in which they lived. The document's language, structure, and assumptions can provide information about the historical period or the event.

What does this document mean to you?

  • In other words, "so what?" Why is this document important? What did it mean to the historical actors (author, original audience(s), and/or society)? What does it mean to today's society or to you?

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.

How does this source compare to other sources?

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:// 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 Internet. Accessed 15 August 2005.