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HOW TO READ DOCUMENTS/ ORIGINAL SOURCES

[Adapted from M.E. Perry and E. Strenski, "A Student Guide to Reading Historical Documents," Social Education (Jan. 1984): 58-59, with the permission of the authors.]

Reading historical documents is a more demanding and complex activity than reading the packaged information in a textbook. You need to put the selections in the context of what other things you know about the period of time in which they were produced. In order to relate each document to its particular historical context and to the general problems with which we deal in this course, you should read through the entire document and then attempt to answer the following questions where they are appropriate to the assignment.

1. Author(s): Who were they? What was their authority? (Personal? institutional?) What was their specialized knowledge or experience? How would you describe the authors' tone of voice? (Formal, angry, respectful, other?)

2. Audience(s): Who were the intended reader(s) or listener(s)? Were there other readers or listeners beyond those originally intended? Who? How did the audience affect the ways the author(s) presented ideas?

3. Purpose: What was the explicit intent behind this document? (To do what? Or cause what to happen?)
What was the relation between this intent and other policy or practice?
Was there an implicit purpose, or hidden agenda, behind this document?
Who benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the policy reflected in the document?

4. Context: What were the date and place of the document?
What was the interval between the initial problem or event and this document which responded to it?
What medium or form was the document communicated through? (Newspaper, government record, letter, other?)
Where was the document written and read?
What were other events or conditions at the same time that could have affected the reading or writing of the document?

5. Meaning: Is there any ambiguity in the literal meaning of the document? Which words?
Are there striking omissions in the document? How does this affect its meaning?
Does the organization of ideas or the repetition of themes in the document suggest those that the writer(s) believed most important?
Are there any confusing terms in this document? Which words?
Can you detect bias in the choice of any words or terms? Which?
Can you detect any underlying assumptions (of values or attitudes) revealed in any loaded remarks or passing remarks? What?
Can you sense any contradictory or conflicting attitudes or issues expressed in the document? What?
How does the form or medium affect the meaning of this document?

6. Corroboration: Do other sources support this document? How do other documents from this period illuminate or contradict this document?

SUGGESTION: It is probably best to note your responses to most of these questions in the margins of the document itself, assuming of course that the book is yours.

Mail questions and comments to (owenjack@isu.edu), or send a message now. Please include your name and address in the body of your message.


All contents copyright © 1995.
J. B. Owens
All rights reserved.

Revised: 26 August 1996

URL: http://www.isu.edu/~owenjack/westciv/docread.html