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Finding Primary Sources: Thinking Critically

A guide created to assist students to find and evaluate primary sources.

Thinking Critically

Keep Your Eyes Open!

Thoroughly read the document and take notes. Make note of anything that strikes you as important, odd, and/or exciting.

Ask Questions

Ask yourself questions about the document:

  • Who was the author?
  • Why were they writing?
  • What is the context in which they were writing?
  • Were they writing with a particular audience in mind? Is there evidence of bias (political, religious, personal)?
  • When were they writing and who were the writing for? A King or a patron?
  • Was the author witnessing the account first hand or were they recording the experiences of others?
  • What dates, locations, and people are mentioned?

Compare and Contrast Accounts

Just because a document is considered a primary source does not mean that it is an accurate or truthful account of a particular event. In order to get a sense of what actually happened in the past do the following:

  • Look for evidence of bias in the writing. Are there any hints of a political agenda lurking between the lines?
  • If the document is a diary or a memoir, ask yourself questions about the author and their life. Are they being honest or are they writing for posterity?
  • Look at other contemporary accounts of the same event. How do the accounts differ or are they the same?

Evaluate the Source

  • Are you looking at the original text, or has the item been translated by another party? Ask yourself whether or not you can trust their transcription.
  • When possible, go directly to the original text. We know that this is not always possible, but try and compare different translations in order to determine how much the translated text deviates from the original.

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