Information on Source Interpretation for Students

    What is a source?

    Anything that tells us something about the past can be used as a source. This includes texts, pictures, objects, films, radio broadcasts, etc.

    A distinction can be made between sources that have already been written for posterity (e. g. memoirs) and sources that have survived by chance (e. g. everyday objects). The former are referred to as tradition and the latter as remnants.

    Not every type of source is suitable for every thematic aspect / period. When working with a source the specific characteristics of the source genre should always be taken into account. For example, the critical analysis of a movie is different from working with an early modern manuscript; different abilities and skills are required in each case.

    How do I work with a source?

    Various questions can be addressed to sources. Even if not all these questions can be answered, the goal is to find out as much information as possible. To this end, the source itself is consulted and other sources and secondary literature are also used to supplement and contextualize the information contained in the source.

    First of all, we need to clarify what kind of source it is:

    Text, image, object…?
    Official report, newspaper article, ego document…?
    Place of deposit
    Condition: Original or copy?

    Then the source must be read / looked at / listened to and understood. This includes, for example, clarifying unknown foreign words or terms unknown today / historical terms or contexts.

    The next step deals with the context from which it originated, for example:

    Author, his or her background (personal, family, professional) and his or her intentions
    Date of origin
    Addressees / audience / distribution
    Historical context

    Finally, the content of the source needs to be analyzed:

    What does it deal with?
    What is mentioned, what is concealed?
    What can we read between the lines?
    Are there references to contemporary events, people etc.?
    Are there any indications of forgery or subsequent changes?

    After the source has been examined and analyzed in detail, consider its significance for your own research question(s):

    How and why is this source useful for you?
    What does it tell you? What does it not tell you?
    How does it fit into its historical context?
    What conclusions can be drawn from this for your further inquiries / research?

    You can find additional information and worksheets supporting your work with primary sources at the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration.