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EDF 5519: The History of Higher Education

This research guide supports the major research project assigned in EDF 5519.

How to Analyze a Primary Source


When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the sources — whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies — that people from that period left behind.

Each historian, including you, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. Remember that there is no one right interpretation. However, if you do not do a careful and thorough job, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation.

In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. The following questions may be helpful to you as you begin to analyze the sources:

  1. Look at the physical nature of your source. This is particularly important and powerful if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
  2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author’s message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use?
  4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person’s eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
  6. What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell you? How does the language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author’s choice of words tell you? What about the silences — what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.

  1. Is it prescriptive — telling you what people thought should happen — or descriptive — telling you what people thought did happen?
  2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
  3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of “ordinary” people? From whose perspective?
  4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
  5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
  6. If we have read other historians’ interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

Remember, you cannot address each and every one of these questions in your presentation or in your paper, and I wouldn’t want you to. You need to be selective.

– Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others

Integrating Primary Sources into your Writing

While writing with primary sources can be intimidating, it is not very different from writing with secondary sources. 

In all cases, incorporating quoted content or a description of a primary source should be in support of your overall argument. We are in support of using the "BEAM Model" to ensure your inclusion of a source is necessary. All sources should be either Background, Exhibit, Argument, or Method. 

  • Background: using a source to provide general information to explain the topic. For example, the use of a Wikipedia page on the Pledge of Allegiance to explain the relevant court cases and changes the Pledge has undergone. 
  • Exhibit: using a source as evidence or examples to analyze. For a literature paper, this would be a poem you are analyzing. For a history paper, a historical document you are analyzing. For a sociology paper, it might be the data from a study.
  • Argument: using a source to engage its argument. For example, you might use an editorial from the New York Times on the value of higher education to refute in your own paper. 
  • Method: using a source's way of analyzing an issue to apply to your own issue. For example, you might use a study's methods, definitions, or conclusions on gentrification in Chicago to apply to your own neighborhood in New York City.  

With primary sources, you will most likely be incorporating quotations from materials in the first three ways: Background, Exhibit, and Argument. Just like with a primary source, you will need to contextualize your quotations -- who is the writer? when was the source written? etc. 

Primary sources can also be integrated into your writing by description of their physical properties. The text can not only be quoted but described: Is the handwriting scratchy? Nearly horizontal? Careful and considered calligraphy? The physical characteristics of a text object might serve as evidence for its intended use: As a small book, does this seem intended for silent and individual reading? Similarly, wear and tear (or lack thereof) on a book or manuscript may provide evidence of its treatment over the years since its creation, giving a sense of how the text might have been pored over or preserved. 

Citing SCA Materials

Citations for rare or unique materials should include enough information to identify and locate the original work: 

  • title of work
  • date of creation or publication
  • collection name
  • name and location of the repository or library unit

Optimally, a citation for rare and/or unpublished works will include other information to further identify and locate the original copy of the work, which may include: 

  • collection identifier
  • box number
  • folder name and/or number
  • call number
  • documentary or media format
  • URL for a catalog entry, finding aid, or Digital Library object

Archives & Manuscripts

Preferred citation information is available from the ArchivesSpace database for archives and manuscripts collections. They generally follow this format: 

Title of Item, Date of Item, Box and Folder Number, Title of Collection, Collection ID, Parent Unit, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. collection record URL

Example: Vita (Paul Dirac), 1984, Box: 15, Folder: 09. Paul A.M. Dirac Papers, MSS 1989-009. FSU Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. 

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