Notes on How to Read Primary Sources

(thanks to my primary source, Pablo Silva of Carleton College)


There are 2 things you should be looking for when you read.

(1)         the information, direct and indirect, it provides; and

(2)         any bias that might skew or distort the information.



(1). Information: what to look for in a document


a. first ask: what is the main point of the document? What did you learn from reading it?

b. what does the document say about the people, places, events, activities, beliefs, and the nature of the society that is being described?

c. what does this information in the document tell you about the author of the document?


(2). Validity: how to assess the accuracy and reliability of document


a. who is the author of the document?

b. might the author have any bias or axe to grind? If so, to what extent might this lessen the validity of the document?  Is there a possibility of censorship?  What about self- censorship (consider the intended audience)

c. where and how does the author get his information? That is, was s/he an eye-witness to whatever is being described or did s/he gather the information via word of mouth or in another indirect way?  Was the information recorded immediately or only after the fact?

d. to what extent does the author know and understand the people, events, activities, or beliefs s/he is conveying? In other words, is s/he a "cultural insider" or "cultural outsider"?

e. Something I (MJR) will add to Pablo Silva’s list is a key point that Davidson and Lytle emphasize over and over, but which bears repeating. You can’t assume that “being there” makes a source more credible or reliable. Serving in the Nixon White House, for instance, would not necessarily make one a more reliable source about Watergate. It might simply give the source a strong reason to shade the truth. And being in the streets of Berlin when the Berlin wall fell would not make a source an expert on why the East German Government allowed the wall to fall. Sometimes being closest to the action makes it especially difficult to see the big picture.