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Hints when using primary sources

On the next step, you will be presented with a collection of primary sources. A primary source can be a document, an image, an artefact. They record, at first-hand, the experiences, impressions, views of those who created them and they relate directly to the period being investigated.

Most primary sources are created at the time, giving contemporary responses, but primary sources can also include testimony given by participants and recorded at a later date. While these later testimonies can present problems of interpretation, not least because they may be recorded with the wisdom of hindsight, or shaped by all that has happened in the years since the initial experience or event, all primary sources present their own challenges of interpretation.

Engaging with a primary source for the first time can be a slightly overwhelming thing. You can be lucky and sources can explain themselves obviously and in full. You might be able to see who a letter is to and who it is from; its date, its purpose may well be clear. But often they are not. All you might see is one link in what might be a much longer chain. For instance, sometimes only one side of an exchange of letters might survive, but that one side still has considerable amounts to tell us about the topics discussed, the views expressed.

Primary sources might be treated like pieces in a puzzle. All kinds of sources tell you something, have something to contribute to the overall picture, but in and of themselves they may just give you glimpses to consider. Each one is nonetheless important in informing our understanding of a period, a place, a sequence of events and the complex ways in which people responded and behaved.

Primary sources provoke different responses from different people and historical debate thrives on the contests of interpretation that revolve around source materials. Primary sources inform the kinds of questions we can ask about the past, but before diving in, there are some questions you might consider posing of each source you encounter just to make sure you are getting as much as you can from your engagement with it. Interrogate what it is even before you begin to analyse it in full.

Questions to ask

Here are just some of the questions you might bear in mind as you begin to assess any source:

1) What form does the source take (memorandum, published pamphlet, newspaper article, speech, private letter, open letter, film, photograph, caricature, song, etc)? How does the form affect your interpretation of it?

2) Who created the source? What was the role of the creator or author – in what capacity was the source created? What were their possible motivations for creating the source?

3) Who was the intended audience for the source? Who was it produced or created for? How does this affect the content, the manner of presentation, the tone, the register of language etc?

4) How widely did the source circulate? How far did it reach?

5) When was the source produced? Is it a contemporary source or a statement perhaps recorded decades after the events described? How does that affect your reading of it?

6) What are the source or sources’ wider contemporary contexts?

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This article is from the free online course:

Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland's History 1912-1923

Trinity College Dublin

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