Analyze a primary source as “a window onto
the past.” What does it tell us about its world?
About the people who created or utilized or
responded to it? How does your knowledge of
its historical context help you understand
what it meant in its original setting?
Source Analysis Paper
Getting started (1)
In Assignments, read the instructions and grading rubric for the Source Analysis
In Lessons > Guides & Reviews, look at the sample papers from previous semesters.
10 Mechanics: grammar, spelling, word count (at least 600 words)
20 Style: organization, clarity, persuasiveness
20 Quotation, paraphrase, or description
Identify the source’s
surroundings. Who created
it? When? Why? How?
What ideas or events or
realities shaped its function
or meaning in its day?
Choose some interesting quotes, details, or features
of the source. Discuss their meaning. What do they
show us about how people thought or acted in that
day? How does it connect to a particular aspect of
• a letter from a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars
• the Edict of Nantes
• Martin Luther
• the French Revolution
• Hobbes, Leviathan
• an internet article about the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
• your textbook The West
• Find a primary source from the colonial period of US history (up to c. 1780).
– What is a primary source?
• Something from the time period
– It can be textual, like a letter, book, speech, poem, song, legal record.
– Or it can be physical, like a musket, teapot, shoe.
– Or it could be visual, like a painting, flag, cartoon, architectural plan.
YES: a primary
Getting started (2)
YES: a primary source
NO: this is a topic, not a source
NO: a secondary
YES: a primary source
NO: a secondary source
NO: this is a topic, not a source
• Where to find primary sources:
– Lessons > HIST-5 Primary Source Anthology
– Resources > Useful websites for HIST-5
• The best site for primary source texts is probably the Fordham Modern History
• Ask me about a primary source quote or image from lecture if you’d like to use it for
your Source Analysis paper. I’ll tell you where to find information about it.
• Choose a source that’s interesting to you.
Getting started (3)
• Do some basic research about the context of your source.
– Basic context: when, where, who, why, how?
– Deeper layers of context: What cultural, political, economic, material etc. situations
would have impacted the source’s meaning or function at that time? Maybe only
one of these contexts is meaningful for your source. Maybe all of them. It will be
different for each source.
– Beware of online “information”
• Only trust websites when you know that author is trustworthy and knowledgeable.
• There is a truly astonishing amount of disinformation on the internet. Beware. Be judgmental,
elitist, untrusting, snooty, mean people when you do internet research. There’s no point in
learning information that’s wrong. No point at all. Waste of brain space.
– Take notes as you research and start writing the paper.
• Focus on analyzing the source itself, not on research
– This paper should center on historical criticism, not research. Do not spend too
much time researching. Delve right into the source itself. I want to hear your own
views and analysis as you explore the source as a window onto the past.
– Look at the details! Engaging with details of diction, style, symbolism, etc. usually
produces a rich analysis and helps you get started quickly. (writer’s block cure)
– If you quote something word for word, use quotation marks and cite the source of
the quote. Otherwise , in this paper you do not need to cite the sources.
Getting started (4)
• Identify your source and its basic context
– What is it? Who created it? When? Where? How? Why?
• Historical criticism
– Use the source as a window onto the past. What does the source show
us about the way people lived and thought in its day?
– Use your knowledge of the source’s context help you understand what
it originally meant for the people who created it and perceived it in
that time period. What political, religious, cultural, economic, etc.
ideas or realities would have influenced their understanding of the
– This should be the focus of your paper. Do not spend too much time
reporting information. Focus on analyzing the source itself.
• Quote, paraphrase, or describe
– Refer to some key features in the source (such as specific sentences,
details, word choice, symbolism, theme, etc.). Analyze how these
features reflect the outlook of the people who created or reacted to
the source in its original setting. How would people have reacted to or
interpreted them at that time?
– Discuss the author or artist’s ideological paradigms: what does he
assume to be good or evil, possible or impossible, true or false? What
does he/she seem to assume about his audience’s outlook, about their
fears or desires or ideological assumptions?
– Quote economically
• Always match the quotation/paraphrase/description with analysis/discussion.
Use your quote! Don’t just leave it hanging there.
Get unstuck by following these simple steps:
Stop researching. Just
stop. Stop staring at the
screen and clicking.
Read your source all the way through. Underline or jot down details or
quotes you find interesting or which remind you of something about the
source’s context. You can do this if your source is non-textual too.
Start typing. Don’t worry about grammar or
style or sounding brilliant. Write 1 paragraph
identifying the source (What is it?) and its
basic context (Who made it? Why? When?
Take a break.
Proofread (please, oh please). Check the grading rubric. Submit.
Add detail and nuance to what you’ve already
written. Explore deeper layers of context. Go
back to the source and look closely at detail
such as diction, style, symbolism, tone. Maybe
add a small ending paragraph of conclusions
Write a couple of sentences
about each interesting item you
found. Explain why they’re
interesting. Suggest what they
might have meant to the people
who saw or created the source in
its day. What do they tell us
about the people’s experiences
Please send me a note in Messages if
you have any questions about a
primary source or the paper. Send me a
rough draft if you’d like. I’m very happy
to give feedback.