Analyzing Historical Documents & Images

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine ways to analyze historical documents and images. We will learn how to place historical materials in context and determine meaning.

Primary Sources: A Wealth of Information

Imagine for a moment that you're cleaning out an older family member's attic, and you stumble upon a trunk filled with some really interesting historical items from the 1940s. You find a hand-written letter from General Dwight Eisenhower commending your grandfather for his service in World War II. You also find some old photographs, and even some posters encouraging American citizens to 'Buy More War Bonds.'

These historical items are considered primary sources. Primary sources are original sources or artifacts created during the time being examined. They contain direct or first-hand information. Film footage of World War II, an abolitionist newspaper from the 1850s, an original photograph of 1920s flappers, a propaganda poster from World War I, a hand-signed document from George Washington. These are all examples of primary sources.

An example of a primary source, a draft of the Day of Infamy Speech delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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Primary sources differ from secondary sources, in that secondary sources usually consist of commentary by experts. For example, a book about Napoleon Bonaparte by a world-famous expert would be a secondary source. Secondary sources are usually based on a variety of primary sources. For example, to write a book about Napoleon, a world-famous historian would probably examine the original letters Napoleon had written, as well as other related primary source documents.

Secondary sources often contain a specific interpretation or approach, whereas primary sources themselves are subject to interpretation. Sometimes interpreting or analyzing primary sources can be a very difficult task. If you discovered an aging flyer from the 1790s, a photograph from the 1930s, or other such primary source, how would you go about trying to make sense of it? Let's learn some strategies!

Context, Context, Context!

The first thing you need to be aware of when analyzing a historical document, or image, is context. Context refers to the background environment. Context is everything!

Think about it: if you didn't know much about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence might not make that much sense to you. You need to be aware of what was going on when the historical document or image was created.

So, if you're looking at a photograph from the 1930s, you might brainstorm and ask yourself what were some of the central themes of the 1930s? What was going on during that decade? What attitudes and values did people have then? Similarly, if you're examining a flyer from the way back in the 1790s, you might want to do some background research to find out what happening during that time period.

Having a strong foundational knowledge (also called context) is essential because it allows you to interpret material more accurately.

Author's Intent and Other Strategies

When analyzing historical material, always be sure to consider the author's intent. This means asking what was the purpose behind the creation of a document/image. Is the flyer or poster purposefully trying to influence others? Does it serve a political purpose? Why was a particular letter written? Why was a photograph taken? Was it taken for artistic purposes, or merely to capture a group of friends having fun? Think about some of the Nazi propaganda posters during the 1930s and 1940s. They were designed for the specific purpose of glorifying the Nazi state and influencing public opinion.

This British World War I propaganda poster was designed to influence public opinion.
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Sometimes you have to interpret material in light of other material. For example, if you find a letter from General Eisenhower commending your grandfather for his service in World War II, you might also find an award certificate. Maybe he won a medal for an act of bravery.

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