Primary Sources -- letters, diary entries, contemporary newspaper reports, official documents -- provide firsthand information from historical actors or observers at the time. These sources are the building blocks for history textbooks, documentary films (like Ken Burns's The Civil War ), and other interpretative works.

Primary sources are as close as a student can get to historical events or time periods. But these sources are man made -- they are not absolute statements of facts. And that means that students have to analyze and question primary sources to get a real understanding of their value. Primary sources can teach us a lot about the past, as long as we are willing to dig in and investigate them.

Who wrote the document? What can you learn about the author and his or her place in society? Is the author a neutral observer? What is the author's interest in the subject?

Why was the document written? Who was the intended audience?

What point is the author trying to make -- what is the central idea being expressed?

How does the author support the argument -- what kind of evidence is presented?

What assumptions does the author make? Can you identify any stereotypes or biases that the author takes for granted but seem strange or even offensive to you? What does that tell you about the historical period you're studying?

Do you think the author is a reliable witness? Why or why not?