The Primary Source Analysis Tool is a creation of the Library of Congress that can help your genealogy research.

LC’s Primary Source Analysis Tool was originally designed to help teachers enliven history for their students using historical documents. The exercises built into the Primary Source Analysis Tool can also be helpful for genealogy research, encouraging you to look at family primary source photos or documents with a fresh perspective.

For genealogical purposes, it helps to use the Primary Source Analysis Tool on your family primary sources with other genealogist friends or groups. Or you can think of yourself as both the teacher and the student as you work through the questions.

The Library of Congress exercise is as follows:

Using Primary Sources

Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.

Examining primary sources gives students genealogists a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Helping students genealogists analyze primary sources can also guide them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills.

Before you begin:

  • Choose at least two or three primary sources that support the learning objectives and are accessible to students genealogists
  • Consider how students genealogists can compare these items to other primary and secondary sources.
  • Identify an analysis tool or guiding questions that students genealogists will use to analyze the primary sources

1. Engage students genealogists with primary sources.

Draw on students’ genealogists’ prior knowledge of the topic.

Ask students genealogists to closely observe each primary source.

  • Who created this primary source?
  • When was it created?
  • Where does your eye go first?

Help students genealogists see key details.

  • What do you see that you didn’t expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?

Encourage students genealogists to think about their personal response to the source.

  • What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
  • What questions does it raise?

2. Promote student genealogist inquiry.

Encourage students genealogists to speculate about each source, its creator, and its context.

  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?
  • What does the creator do to get his or her point across?
  • What was this primary source’s audience?
  • What biases or stereotypes do you see?

Ask if this source agrees with other primary sources, or with what the student genealogist already knows.

  • Ask students genealogists to test their assumptions about the past.
  • Ask students genealogists to find other primary or secondary sources that offer support or contradiction.

3. Assess how students genealogists apply critical thinking and analysis skills to primary sources.

Have students genealogists summarize what they’ve learned.

  • Ask for reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions.
  • Help students genealogists identify questions for further investigation, and develop strategies for how they might answer them.

Analysis tools and thematic primary source sets from the Library offer entry points to many topics.

Click on this link to learn more about the Primary Source Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress. And click here to download the worksheet for the Primary Source Analysis Tool.