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History Topics Helps: Researching History

Step Three: Finding Information in Primary Sources

  • Questions to ask about each source.
  • Putting primary sources into context.

Whatever type of sources you find, study them carefully before deciding if they are useful and how to incorporate them into your research paper. If the source is worthwhile, take notes as you read and answer the following questions:

1. Who are the people associated with the source?

For example, if it is a letter, who wrote it and to whom? Is it one of several letters or other items? If it is a photograph, who took the photo and of whom or what? What is the focus or subject of the image and what is the photographer's relationship to the subject?

2. When was this source created?

Try to find the date the source was written or created and make note of any other significant dates associated with the source. For instance, a letter written in the 1800s might describe a significant event. Mail traveled much more slowly than it does now, so that a letter written about an event taking place on the east coast and written about that same date, might not have reached the intended recipient until weeks or even months later.

3. Where was this source created?

Try to figure out the place-geographical place and/or institutional-it was created or to understand what places the source depicts or refers to. Where was the letter writer when the letter was written? Where was the recipient? If a photograph was taken in a studio, where was the studio? If people are standing in front of a building, where was the building?

4. What is the context of the source?

Context refers to events occurring at the same time that may contribute to the source's meaning or even its creation. Context is extremely important to historical research.

Here are some ways that context is important to understanding history: Many people today say that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great man and that his ideas are widely accepted today. If that is the case, then why was he assassinated? Public figures are likely to be attacked when their ideas are considered dangerous or threatening. To put King's words into their context, it is necessary to show that his goal of ending segregation in the United States was controversial at the time and some people felt threatened by it.

Look at Charles Dight's letter to Adolf Hitler for a longer discussion of historical context.

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