WHAT IS A PRIMARY SOURCE?

by | Apr 18, 2022 | History

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WHAT IS A PRIMARY SOURCE?
A primary source is an artifact that was created at the time under study and was more or less contemporaneous with the events, people, or places it describes or represents. Primary sources can be textual (a memoir, a letter, a legal code, tax record, etc.), visual (a photograph, painting, architecture, etc.), auditory (sound recording), audio-visual (film or video with sound, etc.), or some other contemporaneous record. Primary sources are differentiated from secondary sources, the articles and books written by historians and other scholars, and tertiary sources, which are textbooks, documentaries, and other syntheses of secondary sources.
SELECTION
For the draft Analytical Essay on a Primary Source, you will analyze one primary source from among those assigned in this course’s Discussion Boards. At the end of the month, you will submit a more complete, 3-4 page version of this same paper. For this assignment, you do not have to determine whether a given artifact is a primary source or not. In each Discussion Board Topic, one or more primary sources are clearly identified as such.
ANALYSIS
Primary sources are what historians and other scholars study when they try to make sense of the past. But interpreting such sources is rarely as straightforward as we would like, and the sources are not mere mirrors of the world that historians want to understand. We are obliged, therefore, to use our critical thinking skills, particularly our interpretive skills. To interpret primary sources we ask questions of the them, considering the contexts of their production and uncovering the their inherent biases to decipher what they do and don’t reveal to us about the past. Finally, we employ our skills at logical argumentation to convince others of the validity of our interpretations.
Start by reading or viewing the primary source you chose and beginning the analysis of its meaning by making notes on your answers to the questions below:
What kind of primary source is it?
Who is the author or creator (if known)?
Can you tell why was it written or created?
Can you tell who the intended audience was?
What is the primary source’s tone? What words and phrases (and/or scenes and visual perspectives) convey it?
What are the author’s or creator’s values and assumptions? Is there visible bias?
What information does it relate? Did the author or creator have first-hand knowledge of the subject or did s/he report what others saw and heard?
What issues does it address?
What is your overall assessment of the primary source and its usefulness/significance for the historical study of your topic?
Note that some questions may not be answerable, some may be relatively unimportant, and others will be central to your analysis. It all depends on the document and the kind of analysis you wish to make.
ESSAY COMPOSITION
Once you have begun analyzing the primary source by answering the questions above, use your answers to those questions to help determine how to interpret the primary source. Your task is not to argue with or endorse its ideas. Try to maintain an impartial tone. To complete the assignment successfully you need to read the source carefully and analyze its contents. We will practice these analytical skills in the discussion boards and here are some steps to follow as you put your ideas into writing this essay.
Start your essay with an explanation of the task before you. Tell the reader what kind of source it is (image, legal code, literary text, travelogue, memoir, architecture, etc.). Express its stated or implied thesis or main point and try to surmise from clues in the text (tone, topics, values, etc.) the source’s purpose. Provide a historical context for the document. Your goal is to present an accurate and concise sketch that places the primary source in its historical context and gives an appropriate factual and thematic background to the specific points you will discuss in the next part of the essay.
That explanation of the source and its historical context might be handled in a few concise sentences or it might require a couple of paragraphs. Either way, the bulk of the paper should center on what you take to be the main takeaway from the document. What key issue does the document raise? What kind of information does it provide? Your explanation about what we can learn from the artifact is your thesis, and your job is to demonstrate the validity of that thesis with specific references to the source.
Analyze the values and assumptions the source contains. You will have to make some inferences from the source since values and assumptions are more often hidden and implicit rather than open and explicit. They are the unspoken foundations on which a source rests, and they often give it its meaning. Be sure to present those pieces of evidence upon which you make your assessment.

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