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European History Primary Sources: How to use

Created from Professor Grimmer-Solem's Research Paper Resources Guide

What is a primary source

Primary sources are the raw materials of all good historical research.  Original documents and artifacts produced during the period you are investigating or at a later date but from personal memories of participants or observers of historical events, as well as any quantitative data drawn from those documents or artifacts.  

Items such as:

  • letters, diaries, journals
  • Manuscripts, speeches, interviews
  • paintings, drawings, sculptures
  • photographic images, audio recordings, film or video
  • government documents, court cases, census data, economic statistics
  • pamphlets, factual newspaper articles
  • materials unearthed at archeological sites, coins, medals
  • clothing, tools, flags, weapons
  • songs, stories, novels, plays
  • marriage license, deeds, certificates


How to use a primary source

Start with a list of questions about:

  • author
  • context - who is talking to whom
  • time period


  • sourcing- think about the documents author and its creation
    • who created it
    • when
    • for what purpose
    • how trustworthy is it
    • why
  • contextualizing-situate the document and its events in time and place
    • what are the major events of the era
    • themes
    • who is the audience of this piece
    • see it through their eyes and world not ours
  • close reading-what the document says and the language it uses
    • I've never heard that expression before
    • that may be a reference too...
    • I wonder if that's what really happened
    • read the silences- what is not be mentioned, whose voice is not being heard
  • corroborate
    • check multiple sources for details that agree or disagree