The Source Analysis Worksheets are designed to help you learn to read like a historian and how to take useful notes that can be used in writing papers.

Source Analysis Worksheet Guide
The Source Analysis Worksheets are designed to help you learn to read like a historian and how
to take useful notes that can be used in writing papers.
By “learn to read like a historian” I mean paying attention to clues that a source gives you about
how it was put together and what a source may tell us about a time in the past. Knowing how and
when a source was made, in what form and addressing which audience can tell us a lot. Not
everything and not definitively, but a lot.
So let’s go through the elements.
Title: Titles give us a big clue as to what the source is about, so it is worth taking a moment,
when reading a source, to note the title and to keep it in mind when reading. Not every primary
source has a title, but some do. Some titles were given by the author of the source and some were
given by the editors or translators who made it possible for us to read it. If you can tell which one
is the case in any given source, try to note that. Not every source will be clear on this. It is okay
to guess, because that is how you start to engage with the text. Just be prepared to learn that you
may have been wrong.
Author: We want to know who the author is. This is crucial information because it can give us a
clue as to what perspective the source may be representing. Maybe the author was a male
member of the ruling class. Maybe the author was a poor rural woman. These two examples are
likely to have had very different experiences and perspectives and knowing that at the start is
helpful to your reading. It is also possible that you’ll know nothing about the author, but
knowing that it was a single person, or a committee, or an anonymous producer can all be
helpful. Not every source will be clear on this. It is okay to guess, because that is how you start
to engage with the text. Just be prepared to learn that you may have been wrong.
Form: What we mean here is: Was this a speech? Was it published in a public forum, such as a
newspaper, magazine, book or on the radio? Each of these forms follow certain standards of
argumentation and presentation and presume certain kinds of broad audiences that the author
won’t know personally. Was it a government memo or a court deposition? Was it a private letter,
a diary entry? The audience will be well known to the author. Taking a moment to recognize
what form the source was produced in and reflect on what the choice of that form says about
what the author was intending to communicate. Not every source will be clear on this. It is okay
to guess, because that is how you start to engage with the text. Just be prepared to learn that you
may have been wrong.
Date: It seems obvious that historians want to know when something was produced. It tells us
about when the statements in the source were made and what was known, what could be known
and what could not be known. But thinking about the date tells you other things. Let’s say the
source is talking about an event. Was it written right after the event, some time after or a long
time after? You could note two dates then: the date of the events being described and the date in
which the source was published and ponder why there was a gap between the event and the
production of the source. Did the time gap have any possible effect on the author’s memory of
the events described? Not every source will be clear on this. It is okay to guess, because that is
how you start to engage with the text. Just be prepared to learn that you may have been wrong.
Place: Normally, this means where was the source produced or published? But it can also be
encouraging you to think about which places the source is concerned with. Sources are both from
places and they are about places and sometimes the two are different. Might the place issue help
you understand anything about the source? Maybe. Not every source will be clear on this. It is
okay to guess, because that is how you start to engage with the text. Just be prepared to learn that
you may have been wrong.
Audience: Often, this is the hardest element to know, if it isn’t a personal source like a letter.
How do we imagine who the audience of a speech was or a newspaper article? You may not
know specifics, but you can often get clues from the texts. Maybe the author gives clues that he
expects his audience is other people like him. Maybe the author thinks it will be people who she
needs to persuade. The two can entail very different strategies. Not every source will be clear on
this. It is okay to guess, because that is how you start to engage with the text. Just be prepared to
learn that you may have been wrong.
Core Message: Writing is hard and time consuming. It can also expose writers to risk—of social
condemnation or even arrest and death. Even writers often hate doing it. Given this, what is it
that the author feels it is necessary or desirable to say, so necessary or desirable that they will
undergo hard work or personal risk to say it? What would they say to boil it all down to you if
you were an editor and they had you in the elevator for a couple of floors? Read the source
through once and then make a decision as to what you think this is. This is a good item to start
with when talking with others in your section about your Source Analysis Worksheet. The rest of
the analysis of the source, using the things you’ve noted here, is all about how the author of the
source went about making this core message convincing.
Keywords: Looking for keywords means looking at the rhetorical choices the author made and
identifying words or phrases that carry a lot of weight in making the author’s case. The example
I like to use is the way that Zeng Guofan always called the Taiping Rebels “bandits.” If he called
them rebels, he might have to deal with the notion that the Taiping had a social agenda. But if he
calls them “bandits” he can just characterize them as illegitimate and harmful. Sometimes
authors will try to persuade by arguing that they are describing personal experience. Sometimes
authors will try to persuade by arguing that they are relying on impersonal logic or statistics.
Noticing the rhetorical choices helps you understand how authors try to make their arguments
persuasive.
Key Quotes: As you are noticing the author’s rhetorical style, you’ll notice sentences or phrases
that stand out as powerful representatives of how or what the author argued. When writing a
historical essay it is always good to show the reader that your interpretation is rooted in the
words of the authors themselves, that you are not, in other words, merely imposing your view
upon them. Using quotes from the original text in your essay can also give you the opportunity to
demonstrate your analysis.
Relevant Themes: Not all documents are strictly about Imperialism, or Revolution, or
Modernity. Sometimes they are about more than one. Think about the ways that, for example, an
author might argue that the best response to Imperialism is Revolution or Modernity. More
precisely in the source, you might notice a continuing theme of gender, for example, as the way
the author makes an argument about modernity. You might see the author arguing for justice or
ethics as the framework for thinking about any of our broader themes. Identifying these
themes—whether they are the themes of our class or other themes—can help you make the
argument about why this source is important for our understanding.
Notes for Analysis: “Analysis” is according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a detailed
examination of anything complex in order to understand its nature or to determine its essential
features.” It means to break something down into its constituent parts and understand how those
parts function in a whole. Think of a body, for example. An analysis of a human body would
look into the skeletal structure, muscles, organs, lymph system, nervous system, circulatory
system, respiratory system, digestive system and so on. All of these elements of the human body
are necessary for the body to work. Each plays their role. Now look at a source and use the
metaphor of the body: the “Core Message” is the body alive. What keeps that body alive? Word
choices (rhetoric=circulatory system), order of argument (logic=skeletal system), etc.
So use your understanding of what a source’s “Core Message” is. Use the information you can
tell about the source from the answers you’ve given to the other items on this worksheet to see
how that Core Message was crafted, who it was meant to persuade (or inform), why it might
have been persuasive (or informative), what limitations might it have had, and so on.
When historians read primary sources, this is the work we do.

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