The 5 "P"s of reading primary sources

These creations of the days of yore—paintings, texts, law codes, and for people who will study us someday, the Web and new media like Twitter and Facebook—are the bread and butter of a historian’s world. They’re also, frustratingly, the bane of any history teacher’s daily existence.

It’s difficult for practicing historians to step back and explain how to unpack a document written a millennium ago by someone inhabiting a completely different world. The process we use for our own work is often second nature, entirely internalized and completely instinctive, especially after so many years spent grafting new theory and new methodology to the processes we learned when we were novices to the craft.

But a clear process is key to helping students hone the evaluative skills they use in everyday life in service of reading a historical document critically. The 5 “P”s presented here offer up a systematic way to communicate the process of interrogating a primary source to students.

The document itself is still a work in progress, if only because—as with any document created in a specific historical context—the analogies and metaphors that tie a student’s ability to question their own peers motives and contexts to their ability to question historical motives and contexts tend to shift with each new set of student expectations.

PERSON: Who is the author, and what do you know about him/her?

Every primary source we read had an author, even if we do not know who the author was. It’s important to determine how reliable and accurate that author was and how close the person was to the action that he/she describes. Sometimes the author was trying to influence the outcome of a certain event or process. Making sense of the author’s writing thus depends on figuring out who he or she was.

QUESTIONS: What kinds of beliefs did the author have? What kinds of choices—educational, political, religious, economic, personal—did the author make for him/herself? How did the author see him/herself relating to the things he/she describes? Just as important, what don’t we know about the author?

PLACEMENT: Where and when is this document placed in space and time?

A document doesn’t materialize out of thin air.  Each belongs in a specific time, place, and social setting, and we have to place the document in its historical context. If you’re still not sure why context matters, think about how the Declaration of Independence would sound if it were written today, or if it had been written in 18th century China rather than the American colonies.

QUESTIONS: What can we tell about the context—social, cultural and environmental—in which the author lived and in which the document was produced? How close in time and space to the events described was the document written? What do we not know?

PURPOSE: What is the intention of the writer? Why is he/she writing?

In the same way a TV ad is selling you something, a document was usually written in an attempt to get an audience to do or believe something specific. These documents may have more than one message or purpose. Also remember the difference between intent and result: none of these documents tells us what sort of influence it had. For example, a medieval document urging people should go to confession once a year may not have actually caused people to go to confession once a year.

QUESTIONS: What does this author want the audience to do or believe? What overt, explicit, or surface message does the document contain? What hidden meanings or hidden agendas does the document contain? Did the document actually make people do or believe something? How do we know?

PLAN: What kinds of tone, form, genre or imagery did the author employ? Are these choices important and if so, how?

Most documents are written according to particular forms and rules.  A poet, for example, might follow a metrical or rhyme scheme. The language appropriate in a formal petition to a ruler is very different than the language one might use to record a small loan or the language one might use in a letter to a friend.

QUESTIONS: What type of language is used—formal, informal, technical, inflammatory, prescribed? Does the author use metaphors, analogies, or imagery (e.g. embodying the concept of “liberty” as Lady Liberty in human female form)? What kinds of document organization—bullet points or prose, simple or complex—does the author employ? Why might the author use these particular approaches in his/her writing?

PUBLIC: Who is the intended audience? What kinds of assumptions does the author make about the audience?

In the same way a television commercial is aimed at a certain audience, a historical document is always aimed at an audience.  You’re probably familiar with the impact “great” documents have on history—the Magna Carta, for instance—but consider also how certain audiences influence the way a document was written. The Magna Carta would have been written very differently if it had been written in France instead of in England. Consider also how different audiences might react differently to a document, just as different audiences might react differently to an episode of “The Simpsons.”

QUESTIONS: Who is the audience?  Who would have been able to read, or wanted to read, such a document?  What language was it written in?  What references does the document make that assume an audience will have preexisting knowledge?

5 “P”s, Kalani Craig & Heather Vrana.

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