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Writing Center

Writing Resources

Analyzing a Historical Document

Your professor may ask you to analyze a primary document. Here are some questions you might ask of your document. You will note a common theme—read critically with sensitivity to the context. This list is not a suggested outline for a paper; the wording of the assignment and the nature of the document itself should determine your organization and which of the questions are most relevant. Of course, you can ask these same questions of any document you encounter in your research.

  • What exactly is the document (e.g., diary, king's decree, opera score, bureaucratic memorandum, parliamentary minutes, newspaper article, peace treaty)?
  • Are you dealing with the original or with a copy? If it is a copy, how remote is it from the original (e.g., photocopy of the original, reformatted version in a book, translation)?  How might deviations from the original affect your interpretation?
  • What is the date of the document?
  • Is there any reason to believe that the document is not genuine or not exactly what it appears to be?
  • Who is the author, and what stake does the author have in the matters discussed? If the document is unsigned, what can you infer about the author or authors?
  • What sort of biases or blind spots might the author have? For example, is an educated bureaucrat writing with third-hand knowledge of rural hunger riots?
  • Where, why, and under what circumstances did the author write the document?
  • How might the circumstances (e.g., fear of censorship, the desire to curry favor or evade blame) have influenced the content, style, or tone of the document?
  • Has the document been published? If so, did the author intend it to be published?
  • If the document was not published, how has it been preserved? In a public archive? In a private collection? Can you learn anything from the way it has been preserved? For example, has it been treated as important or as a minor scrap of paper?
  • Does the document have a boilerplate format or style, suggesting that it is a routine sample of a standardized genre, or does it appear out of the ordinary, even unique?
  • Who is the intended audience for the document?
  • What exactly does the document say? Does it imply something different?
  • If the document represents more than one viewpoint, have you carefully distinguished between the author's viewpoint and those viewpoints the author presents only to criticize or refute?
  • In what ways are you, the historian, reading the document differently than its intended audience would have read it (assuming that future historians were not the intended audience)?
  • What does the document leave out that you might have expected it to discuss?
  • What does the document assume that the reader already knows about the subject (e.g., personal conflicts among the Bolsheviks in 1910, the details of tax farming in eighteenth-century Normandy, secret negotiations to end the Vietnam war)?
  • What additional information might help you better interpret the document?
  • Do you know (or are you able to infer) the effects or influences, if any, of the document?
  • What does the document tell you about the period you are studying?
  • If your document is part of an edited collection, why do you suppose the editor chose it? How might the editing have changed the way you perceive the document? For example, have parts been omitted? Has it been translated? (If so, when, by whom, and in what style?) Has the editor placed the document in a suggestive context among other documents, or in some other way led you to a particular interpretation?