If you’re studying History at either GCSE or A-Level, primary sources will feature heavily in your final exams. Getting comfortable with them is not only crucial for doing well in these exams, but can also give you transferable skills for further study and use in the workplace, such as critical thinking and developing an argument.
This short guide will teach you everything you need to know when it comes to analysing a primary source, including some tips and strategies to use in your upcoming exams.
Primary sources don’t just tell historians what happened in the past; they also tell us why these things happened. In other words, primary sources have a deeper purpose. As a history student, it’s your job to uncover that hidden purpose, a bit like a detective solving a crime.
In History, provenance refers to the authorship of a primary source, as well as the time and place in which it was produced. You’ll always be given the biographical details of a source in your exam, so go ahead and use them, but don’t forget to throw in some of your own knowledge as well.
For example, If the author of a primary source is a member of the SS and you are being asked about Hitler’s social policies, you can confidently expect the author to be very supportive of the Nazi regime since the SS were instrumental in putting Hitler’s policies into action. The author may even exaggerate Hitler’s success as a result of loyalty and admiration.
As we said earlier, all primary sources were created with a purpose in mind. Sometimes, an author wants to entertain, to inform, to motivate, or even to criticise somebody else. Returning to our Nazi Germany example, we could argue that an SS officer writes to motivate others to support Hitler and his policies. You would then need to include some evidence from the text to support this idea.
Again, you’ll need to use some of your own knowledge to work this out, but thinking about the context will push your analysis from mediocre to outstanding!
Not all primary sources come in written format. Political cartoons and propaganda posters are commonly found in both GCSE and A-Level papers. You can use the above strategies to help you analyse these types of primary sources, but you should also look at the author’s use of colour, any symbols that appear, and pay special attention to headlines or captions. Remember: posters and cartoons also have a purpose, so make that the focus of your analysis.
Finally, no matter which sources appear in your exam, thinking about their purpose and provenance is the number one place to start. When combined with some of your own knowledge, you’ll quickly move from writing a mediocre analysis to an exceptional one.
Kaye Jones is a teacher and freelance writer, with a passion for history and education.