How to Prepare Textual Primary Sources

The first thing you must be prepared to do is to read the document several times. Give yourself plenty of time to read, think and reflect -- preferably over several days and not just the night before class.

Secondly, and more importantly, real understanding of a document only comes about when it is studied in systematic steps. What happens when we merely read something over and over again? For me, sometimes I've got it memorized (though I don't necessarily understand it). More often it becomes a blur in the mind and after a few days all I can remember, if I'm lucky, is what page it was on. Here, then, are the steps. You'll need to do them in order (if you don't, that blurry feeling will take over), so don't try and skip ahead; each step builds on the one previous. Write down your responses to each step's questions and bring your notes and the document(s) to class.

1. Read for the Narrative or Story

Read the document rapidly the first time, just taking in what you can. On the 2nd, more careful read, try and answer these questions:

  • what is this document about -- what's happening?
  • who are the principal characters?

2. Determine Why the Document Was Written

Read the document again now even more carefully and in light of these questions:

  • did the author have some sort of official position with the government, church or other organization? If so, is s/he writing in his/her official capacity?
  • what is the author's particular point of view? What is s/he trying to convince the reader to believe?
  • who was the intended audience?

3. Evaluate What the Document Says about This Civilization

  • under what circumstances was the document written?
  • what sort of language does the author use? (Is the piece stuffy and official, casual and full of slang?)
  • what is the author NOT saying? (This will be hard to answer but give it a try.)
  • why might the author have chosen this subject and not others?
  • what are the limitations of this document? Whose views are not represented here?

4. Bring Notes and the Readings to Class