Primary Sources

Newspapers, Archival Documents, Personal Papers, Census Data

Questions to consider when using Primary Sources

Analyzing Primary Sources

Interrogate a source like a journalist or a detective might. Ask yourself a series of questions about the documents, keeping in mind that some questions might require you to look elsewhere to find the answer.

Who wrote or made this? Who was it for? Who kept it so that you are able to see it today?

What is the item? What format, or how was it made? Is it a letter, photo, chart, or something else?

Where was this item made or used? Where was it distributed?

When was the item made? What else do we know about that time that can help us understand the item?

Why does this item matter? Why would someone keep it? Does it have a goal or purpose that you can identify? Is the item trying to convince someone of something, or sell something, or was it meant to be private (notes, letters, etc.)?

Wonder. Remember: every primary source represents one moment in time and one perspective. What information do you need to understand the sources better? Where could you look for that information? What other primary sources might help? What voices are not included?

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

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:

Need help?

Wayne State Archivists are experts in primary source searching an analysis. Feel free to reach out at any time. We love to help!