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HIS 6203: American Folklife

Tips for analyzing primary sources

Finding primary sources can sometimes be the easy part. What do you do with them when you find them? 

Here are some things to consider when you analyze specific primary sources, pulled from 

Sound recordings: 

  • What is the tone of mood of the recording? 
  • What is important about this recording?
  • Why was this made, and for what audience? What evidence in this recording helps you know why it was made? 
  • What does this tell you about life during the time it was made? 
  • What is left unanswered by this sound recording? 
  • What information do you get from this recording that would not be conveyed by a transcript? 


  • What is your overall impression of the photo? What is your impression of the individual items? Divide the photo into quadrants and examine it closely
  • Based on your impressions, what obvious and less-than-obvious things can you infer? 
  • What questions does the photo raise in your mind? 
  • Where can you find those answers? 


  • What kind of map is this? What unique features does it have? 
  • Who created this map? Where was this map created? 
  • What is important in this map? 
  • Why was this map drawn? What evidence suggests why this map was drawn? 
  • What questions are left unanswered by this map? 
  • How does this map compare to other maps drawn at different historical periods? 

Documents (newspapers, diaries, letters, memos)

  • For whom was this document created? 
  • Why was it written? What evidence from the document suggests why it was written?
  • What does this document tell you about the time in which it was created? 
  • What was left unanswered by this document? 

Surveying the research

To make an informed analysis of a primary source you need a baseline understanding of the culture that surrounds it. You can get this baseline knowledge by surveying the literature, or presearching. 

Focus on: 

  • Reference materials like the New Georgia EncyclopediaOxford Music Online,  Oxford Art OnlineOxford Reference Online, and Credo Reference Online to name a few
  • Books and other secondary sources on your specific subject or a larger context relating to your subject. For instance, if you are writing on traditions of Renaissance Festivals, you'd want to look up information, perhaps, on cosplay, the Renaissance era, and fandom. 
  • Knowledgable people in the form of the people you are studying as well as scholars can give you insight into ways that you might create or interpret a primary source (in addition to themselves being primary sources!)