WHAT'S A SOURCE, AND HOW DO I USE IT?
Historians are like detectives. They are required to analyse and make sense of pieces of information about people who are no longer able to speak for themselves. Sometimes we have no film, no newspapers, no photographs and no sound recordings to help us; other times, we can make use of a wide range of information including interviewing people to collect their memories of events. Reading a letter or memoir left by someone who died twenty, fifty, a hundred or over a thousand years ago can be thrilling. But do they mean what they say? Is there a hidden message? Are we following a trail of false clues? This is part of the challenge - and excitement - of history. The skills you acquire will remain with you for life, and can be applied in any situation requiring careful, analytical thought.
Begin by reading the text very carefully from start to finish. If you are in doubt about the meaning of words reach for the dictionary, don't try and guess. Once you have grasped the general sense, go back and begin to engage with the document sentence by sentence, teasing out the internal evidence. Reading a source is not like glancing at the newspaper; you cannot grasp all you need to know in a few minutes. It is an active exercise which demands concentration. Remember that the scribe or author was writing for a particular readership, with different ideas and expectations. How far can you put yourself in the shoes of the first recipients?
Avoid simply paraphrasing the document or writing an historical account of the people or events it may describe. This is not the point of the exercise. We want to know what you make of the document itself, how important you think it may be and how far you can set it in a wider historical context.
WHAT TO ASK:
WHO is writing?
Does the individual in question identify himself or herself by name? Are there enough clues to make an informed guess about their sex/gender/class/job? Does this matter? Is the voice coming to us at first hand, or is a third party "vetting" or reporting somebody else's words?
HOW objective or impartial is the writer?
In any source, there may well be a hidden - or not so hidden - message. We do not expect The Guardian to report news in the same way as The Mirror or The Sun, and different people all have their own firmly-held political and religious viewpoints. Can you tease them out?
Dating a document can be very hard, as sometimes people can be frustratingly casual and imprecise about dates, ages and other statistics. Is the writer describing events he or she may have witnessed recently? Or is he or she relying on second-, third- or fourth-hand information? Do you suspect he or she may be exaggerating or making things up? Does the document contain references to people, events and places which can help with dating?
WHEN was it written?
WHAT sort of source is it?
Does it serve a specific purpose? Is it a clip of film, music, an interview, a diary, a photograph? Does it follow a distinctive structure, and if so, why? Can you find others like it? What about the language/s it is written in? The use of Welsh suggests a potentially different readership from English, for example, and tells you more about who the original work was for. If it's a diary, for example, and someone switches from English to Welsh when they are excited or happy or emotional for some reason, that might show you that Welsh was their first language and they are more comfortable writing personal things through this medium - or that they don't want others to be able to read it, if they were around a lot of English-speakers!
WHERE does it come from?
Is it an official or legal document? Is it personal? Do you think the place it was made/recorded or written might influence the content? How, and why?
WHY was the source made, and what are the PROBLEMS for a modern reader?
Can it be connected to a specific sequence of events (e.g. World War II, Cold War, Civil Rights Movement)? Does the creator/writer have an intended readership/audience in mind? If so, do you suppose they achieved their intended purpose?
Do you think the sources poses particular problems for a modern reader? Is its meaning deliberately obscure or ambiguous? Is the vocabulary very technical or specialised (lots of legal terms, for example)? Has it been "doctored" in any way? Do the contents challenge the ideas or assumptions of the historians you have already consulted?