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HIS 2200 - Introduction to Historical Methods - Dr. Butters - Fall 2020

How to Read Primary Documents

Take notes when you read primary sources. Actively engage your primary sources by analyzing as you read, don't just passively read and summarize.

  • Record the citation information!
  • Apply keywords to your notes so you can sort them later (use cards or an electronic sorting system - it doesn't need to be complicated!)
  • Include your analysis in your notes
    • How does the information relate to your argument?
    • What questions does it answer or cause?
    • Draft a sentence on how this could be used in your paper
  • Think critically about primary sources by answering some or all of the following questions:
    • Who wrote the document (give as many details as you can, name, age, geographic location)?
    • Who is the subject?
    • What was the motivation for writing the document? Why was it written? (court transcripts, personal diary, committee minutes)
    • Does the form influence the content (would you expect to find the same kind of information in a diary entry as in transcripts for a court case?) How?
    • How did the account reach us?
    • How does it function in the broader context?  What else do you know about this time period/person/region?
  • Make sure to indicate in your notes (maybe with a separate color) when you paraphrase and when you quote. You want to make sure that you do not inadvertently use a paraphrase or a quote without providing the proper citation. This would be plagiarizing.

Evaluating Primary Sources

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