Primary Source Evidence

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Using Primary Source Evidence

The litter of history — letters, documents, records, diaries, drawings, newspaper accounts and other bits and pieces left behind by those who have passed on — are treasures to the historian. These are primary sources that can give up the secrets of life in the past. Historians learn to read these sources.

But reading a source for evidence demands a different approach than reading a source for information. The contrast may be seen in an extreme way in the difference between reading a phone book — for information — and examining a boot-print in the snow outside a murder scene — for evidence. When we look up a phone number, we don’t ask ourselves, “who wrote this phonebook?” or “what impact did it have on its readers?” We read it at face value.

The boot print, on the other hand, is a trace of the past that does not allow a comparable reading. Once we establish what it is, we examine it to see if it offers clues about the person who was wearing the boot, when the print was made, which direction the person was headed, and what else was going on at that time.

To read primary sources effectively, we need to consider the following aspects of evidence:

  1. Good questions are necessary in order to turn a source into evidence, the first question being, “What is it?”
  2. Authorship: the position of the author(s) is a key consideration.
  3. Primary sources may reveal information about the (conscious) purposes of the author as well as the (unconscious) values and worldview of the author.
  4. A source should be read in view of its historical background (contextualization).
  5. Analysis of the source should also provide new evidence about its historical setting.