Primary Sources

Newspapers, Archival Documents, Personal Papers, Census Data

Critical Thinking Skills

picture of Albert Einstein with quote, "Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think."

What are critical thinking skills?

Critical thinking skills allow you to analyze a Primary Source to gather as much information as possible from it.  Using your own experiences and prior knowledge of a historical event, much of which you develop when you read books and other secondary sources about a topic, you can raise questions and problems about the sources that help you determine whether or not the source is useful for your project.

Critical thinking skills recognize that human beings have limited perception -- we just can't see and comprehend everything that happens.  Understanding this fundamental fact is essential when considering your own or instructing students in the use of critical thinking skills with primary sources.

-- UConn Libraries

Questions to consider when using Primary Sources

To determine how important a document or source is to your research you should ask yourself several questions:

Begin with an observation of the document in term of it as an object:

  • What type of document am I looking at?  A letter, a financial form, a newspaper clipping, etc.?  It it typed or handwritten?  Does that matter to your understanding of the document?
  • What are its dimensions?  What is its size?
  • Does the document have a color, or scent?
  • Who created this source, and why?
  • Who was the audience for this source?
  • What was this document's original purpose?
  • What was happening when this source was made?
  • Why is this source important?
  • If this source shows a specific point of view about a historical event, is it possible to find an alternate point of view? 
  • What did you find that surprised you about this source?
  • What can I learn from this source that is new to my research?
  • What are some things about the time period of this document that I already know that can help me make sense of this document?
  • Could this same document have been created today?
  • If you have more than one document, how are seemingly dissimilar documents related?
  • What are the assumptions in the documents?  Are they stated or unstated?
  • What is the chronology among the documents in the set?  What is the timeline of the historical moment evident in the documents?

-- UConn Libraries

How to Cite Primary Sources

How to Cite Digitized Primary Sources

Citing primary sources correctly is an important part of studying primary sources, for a number of reasons.

It is important--and ethically necessary--to provide full credit to the creators and publishers of documents, and to allow future scholars to find the source quickly and correctly. Citing a primary source is also crucial to critical thinking and analysis because it requires that the student think carefully about where the source came from, who made it, and in what context the student first discovered it.

-- The Library of Congress

For more citation style guides, please visit:

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