STARTING YOUR PRIMARY SOURCE RESEARCH
Try taking this structured path to start your investigation of these materials.
1. What do you see?
- Before trying to understand the significance, rendering a judgment, or interpreting the material, first just look very closely at the materials in front of you.
- What details jump out at you? Consider carefully how you are arriving at your conclusions about what you are looking at.
- What assumptions might you be bringing to your observations?
- What, if anything, surprises you about the material(s)?
- Write down a brief descriptive statement about the materials, only describing what you have gleaned from your close observation. Try for now not to interpret the significance of the material. Do not judge it, do not give your opinion about it. Describe only what you observe.
2. What is the context?
- What are the immediate surroundings of the material you are looking at (for instance, what other materials are in the folder surrounding it)?
- What do you know about the social/cultural/political moment in which the materials were produced?
- What further information might you want to seek out in order to more fully understand the context in
- which these materials were created?
- What sources might you seek out to help you better understand and interpret them?
3. What is the significance?
Start this part of your investigation by formulating several statements about your understanding of the significance of the material and/or about the intentions of the creators of the materials. As you do this, stay aware of how you arrive at your conclusions. Question your own assumptions.
- Make sure you are basing your statements on your close observation of the material?
- How do the individual objects work together with the surrounding materials?
- What assumptions do you bring to your observations? For instance, what do you know about the period in which the materials were created that might inform your understanding of them?
- What more might you want to know to help further your understanding of the significance of the materials?
Now, choose one of the statements you have formulated, and ask some further questions. You may answer the questions with your own hypotheses, but it is also fine to leave the questions open‐ended, or to skip ones that do not seem to apply to this material.
Please keep in mind: there are no wrong answers (or questions) at this stage of inquiry.
Here are some possible questions for consideration (important: these are not the only questions there are to ask—they are just a jumping‐off point to help you begin asking your own):
- Why was this record created? What were the motivations? What was the record’s function?
- What general statements might you make about the entity responsible for creating these records?
- Stepping back even further, what statements might you make about the society that created these records? What are the society’s values? How do they differ from our contemporary society’s values, or do they?
- What do the records convey about a particular time and place?
- Who do you think was the record’s intended audience, if any?
- What do the records directly or indirectly reveal – about a person/institution, architecture and public space, art, lifestyle – without explicitly stating it?
- What are three research topics that you might use this collection to explore?