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Instruction with Special Collections & University Archives

Resources on classroom instruction with SCUA

Questions to Consider When Evaluating Primary Sources

SCUA often uses the questions below to facilitate critical analysis of items.

Questions to Consider When Evaluating Primary Sources

  • What is it?
  • Who created it?
  • When was it created?
  • Who owned it?
  • Who is the intended audience? Is it public or private?
  • What surprises you? And why?
  • What’s missing if anything?
  • What questions does it lead you to ask?
  • What other sources might you need to interpret your materials?

Questions for Evaluating Non-Written Primary Sources
from Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 6th ed. (Boston: Bedford, 2010)

For Photographs

  • Who is the photographer? Why did he or she take this photograph?
  • Where was the photograph first published or displayed? Did that publication or venue have a particular mission or point of view?
  • Are there any obvious details such as angle, contrast, or cropping that suggest bias?

For Cartoons

  • What is the message of the cartoon? How do words and images combine to convey that message?
  • In what kind of publication did it originally appear (newspaper, magazine, etc.)? Did that publication have a particular agenda or mission?
  • When did the cartoon appear? How might its historical context be significant?

For Artifacts

  • When and where was the artifact made?
  • Who might have used it, and what might it have been used for?
  • What does the artifact tell us about the people who made and used it and the period in which it was made?

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