How to Analyze Historical Documents & Narratives

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Just like detectives, historians have to analyze all sorts of sources, including documents and narratives, in order to find out what really happened. This lesson explains some of the things historians must consider when doing so.

Basic Questions About a Source

Imagine that you are a detective investigating a crime scene. Luckily, there are a number of witnesses, so it looks like this will be a relatively easy case to work. However, that does not mean that you can ignore asking basic questions. Likewise, a historian faced with a collection of sources, no matter how many sources exist, must still ask the same questions before continuing with his or her work.


At the crime scene, someone immediately runs up to you and says that they saw the entire crime. A caped villain flew out of the sky, snatched the purse, and cackled as he flew away. This all sounds a little far-fetched to you, as people can't fly! Rightfully so, you dismiss this person's account as it lacks authenticity - it was clear that they didn't see anything at all!

Likewise, historians have to ask themselves if their sources are authentic. This is a much bigger problem that you would expect, because sometimes even historians can be fooled into thinking that something was there that wasn't. For example, during much of the early 20th century, many historians were fooled into thinking that slaves on American plantations were actually happy being slaves, because the sources they used were not the people who worked on the plantations. Obviously, more authentic sources have proven that this was not the case.


You move on to the next witness. However, he seems to be too busy talking about his girlfriend to contribute anything to your investigation. It seems that there is trouble in paradise, and every time you ask if he saw the theft, he starts talking about her friends being out to get him. In short, anything that he is saying is completely irrelevant.

Information has to be relevant to a historian as well. If you're writing about the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, chances are that you don't need a source on the Battle of Britain in 1940. Sure, it could be real interesting, but it would be a waste of your time to read about it.

The Great Wall of China is generally useless when studying the French Revolution
Great Wall


Hopefully you'll have more luck with your next source. However, when you call for the next person, a small child comes in, tugging a teddy bear. Surely this is a joke, but the other officers say that this is your next witness. He says that although he didn't see the events, Buddy, his teddy bear, did. Even if the child's story about Buddy were true, you'd have a hard time convincing a judge to issue a warrant based on the testimony of a stuffed bear. Witness or not, toys just don't have the authority to stand as witnesses.

Authority, or the overall trustworthiness of a source, is important for historians as well. When an important historian says something is true, chances are that it is. After all, these people have years of experience examining the past. However, sometimes the writings of non-historians can be more valuable than those of historians. For example,

the diaries and letters of the Founding Fathers have provided more insight into their reasons for signing the Declaration of Independence than any number of public speeches could have provided.

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