Historical Primary Sources

Information on primary sources--what they are, how to find them, and how to use and cite them.

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Primary Sources at Johns Hopkins

Unlike encyclopedias, textbooks, or scholarly books and articles, primary sources were not written with you as the intended audience. This can make them more difficult to read--the most important aspects of the source may not be well sign-posted or directly expressed. Before you begin reading then, it helps to consider the following questions:

  • What do I already know about this topic or time period?
  • What do I know about this source in particular?
    • Who wrote/created it?
    • When and where was it created?
    • Who was its intended audience?
    • Why was it created?
    • What is it? (A letter, excerpt from a larger diary/report/etc., official or personal, etc.)
  • What do I want to get out of this source?
    • If you are reading for class, how does this fit with your other readings, lectures, or discussions?
    • If you are reading for research, how does this support or refute your research question?

To effectively read a source, you must be a thoughtful and inquisitive reader. Your specific questions will vary depending on what your purpose for reading the source is, but the questions below can guide your reading process.

  • What does the author assert, imply, and assume?
  • What do Ineed to know to understand more fully? (Are their words or word uses that are unfamilar? Does the source refer to people, places, or events that you need more information about, etc.)
  • What evidence does the author use to support their claims?

Take some time to reflect on the source. Make notes. Doing so will help you understand and make use of the source in a meaningful way, whether to engage in class discussion or support your research. The questions below can guide your reflection.

  • Can I concisely describe the source and its content?
  • How well did the source fulfill what Ihoped to get out of it?
    • What questions do you still have?
    • What new questions do you have?
    • In what ways did the source differ from or conform to your expectations?
  • How does this source connect to other sources/lectures/readings?