51 Questions about Primary Source Documents

Seth Ward

University of Wyoming

 

This list is based in part on exercises I have posted on the web:

http://www.uwyo.edu/sward/termproject/KISS.htm and  

http://www.uwyo.edu/sward/termproject/Five%20Cs%20Exercise.htm

Some of the questions suggested or implied in these exercises are listed below. Some of the questions are very similar to others, although small differences in wording may suggest different avenues for analysis. In some cases, one of the variant forms may be more appropriate than another, for example, for religious literature more than historical texts.

1.                  Review, summarize and/or describe briefly the contents of the passage. 

2.                  Does this work fit into a genre such as letter, historical research, traditional word-of-mouth report, poetry, ethical teaching,  law, preaching, etc. ?

3.                  Who? What? When? And/or Where? of what is described in the document

4.                  What are the most important facts about the historic background and context of the document?

 

5.                  Who? What? When? And/or Where? of the original AUTHOR of the document: what can you say about the author?

6.                  In most cases, your document will be a passage from a larger document or book. What can you say about the entire book it is taken from? If it is not from a book, what can you say about the original source of the document?

7.                  Why did the author write it?

8.                  Where did it first appear/ where was it originally written?

9.                  When was it first published? 

10.              What language(s) was it written in? 

11.              Did YOUR source for the document read it in the original language? (you can usually tell by whether the anthologist or modern scholar references his or her source as a translation or in the original language).

12.              What was the religion, ideology or personal history of the author(s) of the original work?

13.              What role do factors such as religion, ideology or personal history of the author(s) play in the reason for writing the work?

 

14.              Who? What? When? And/or Where? of the modern anthologizer or scholar who selected the document may be relevant.

15.              Any suggestions as to why the modern author / anthologizer chose to include it in the anthology of texts?

 

16.              What do historians say about the document? About the book from which it is taken? About the author of the book or document?

17.              Find a comment made by a secondary source (e.g. in a textbook or in the introduction attached to the text cited, in an online source, encyclopedia article, etc.)?

18.              Does Coe Library, or another library such as Prospector or the State/County/City library near you have the book or have access to the book from which the document was taken? In English translation? In the original language?

19.              Find books in Coe library or another Library that mention the document or the author of the document—what do they say about the document?  

20.              Find a textbook or another anthology that mentions the document.

21.              Is it mentioned by textbooks or other readings assigned in your class? (i.e., elsewhere in your textbooks or readings, not simply in the specific place where you found it in an anthology assigned to the class). Or in another class?  

22.              Find articles or books on library databases such as ArticleFirst, JSTOR, Project Muse, etc.; Google Books; Google Scholar—verify that they are referring to the same document, or to the book that the document is taken from. What do they say about the document?

 

23.              Identify persons mentioned specifically in the text: give their dates and if you can where they lived

24.              Identify places mentioned specifically in the text. Can you find them on a map?

25.              Identify events mentioned specifically in the text.

26.              Identify books, essays, writings, or other documents mentioned specifically in the text.

27.              Identify scriptural passages and terminology used or reflected  in this text.

28.              How does this author use sacred, traditional or other texts that could be expected to be familiar to the audience?

29.              Are there foreign-language terms mentioned in this edition of the document? Or, do you think that an English term actually represents the translation of a term which has a very specific meaning in the original language?

30.              Identify persons, places, events, books, etc. *not* mentioned specifically if they are relevant to understanding the text—for example, they may be part of the context or background.

31.              Does this document assume you are familiar with any specific literature, story, or concepts? (Example: Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on the Qur’an, written in Britain some 70 years ago, assumes familiarity with Shakespeare, Wordsworth and other English writers).

32.              Are there potentially misleading phrases? Can you comment on how they might be understood?  

33.              Is there language which is technical, legal, or highly formal? Can you explain the meaning in everyday terms?

34.              Identify ideas, intellectual movements and concepts (such as streams of thought about controversial issues) necessary to understanding the text. 

 

35.              Assume all documents have a controversial position: they are written to support some position and to oppose some other. What controversy or potential controversy might have caused this text to have been written ---and how does this affect it? 

36.              Can it be compared and contrasted with other texts on related subjects? 

37.              What was the significance of the source from which the passage is taken?

 

38.              What is important to the author and what perspective, if any, does that provide?

39.              What information, data, and basic facts does the author present?  What did you learn about the facts of the subject? Choices made by the author?

40.              How does the author interpret the facts presented? Sometimes, the choice made is an interpretation.

41.              Even the choice of what types of knowledge or sources are presented by the author can reflect his or her interpretation of the item under study or the significance of the document: to what extent is that the case here?  

42.              What assessments does the author make about the material? What opinions or conclusions does the author draw from the knowledge he or she as gathered?

43.              What sources are used by the author—how does he get his material?

44.              What sources if any are privileged by the author (i.e., are there any sources which the author holds to be special)?

 

45.              What do we learn that might be important for our course?

46.              Is there something you feel you now understand better as a result of your study of this document?

47.              Why it is significant today—in the broadest sense?

48.              Can you think of some other question for analysis of a primary source document coming from your study of the methodology of History?

49.              Can you think of some question for analysis of a primary source document coming from your study of the methodology of Religious Studies?

50.              Can you think of some question for analysis of a primary source document coming from your study of the methodology of any other discipline?

51.              To what extent do your own expectations shape what you are able to find in this document?