Uploaded by Tommaso Vilona

How to Read a Secondary Source

How to Read a Secondary Source
Reading secondary historical sources is a skill which may be acquired and must be practiced. The
key is to think about the material being presented and to connect it to other material you have
covered. To evaluate secondary sources, explore the following parts of the text or artifact by
following these steps:
Structure: First read and think about the title -- what does it promise for the book or
article? Then, if you have a book in hand, look at the table of contents: this is the "menu" that
reveals the structure of the work. You can use this as your outline for your notes or create your
own brief outline.
Thesis: Always read a secondary source from the outside in: read a book's foreword and
introduction (or the article's first paragraph or two); then read the conclusion or epilogue. Ask
yourself what the author's thesis might be and check it against your outline to see how the
argument has been structured.
Argument: Continue to read the source from the outside in. For a book, quickly read the first and
last paragraph of each chapter to get a good idea of the themes and arguments. Then skim through
the chapters, taking cues as to which paragraphs are most important from their topic sentences. It
is up to you to judge which passages are more important based on what you know so far about the
book's themes and arguments. Highlight passages that seem to be especially relevant by placing
them on notecards or making margin notes. Your notations should include your reactions to those
passages: is it a good piece of evidence for the author's argument or is a particular statement valid
or credible? The idea here is to evaluate the logic of the argument and the base of resources on
which the author relies.
Resources: Read the footnotes! They are the nuts and bolts of history writing. When you come
across a particularly interesting or controversial passage, watch to see what is cited. What primary
sources has the historian used? Have they been used effectively? Are her sources credible or
reliable? How does the use of the sources influence the kinds of arguments made? What other
sources might have been used?
Motives: Why did the author write the book? Find out who the author is/was and the context in
which she or he wrote the book. What political and cultural institutions or events might have had
an impact on the author's reason for writing this source? What ongoing historiographical
discussion (e.g., a hot topic at a history conference, in a journal or listserv) do you think this
source is contributing to?
Understanding the ways historians construct their arguments is essential to writing good history
papers. Secondary sources, including your own research paper, are constructed for various reasons,
including the following:
No one has begun to analyze a particular issue, and so the author is developing a first
interpretation of it.
Gaps or deficiences in the scholarship in a particular topic created a need for a monograph to
help close them.
A popular or commonplace interpretation of an issue begs for a more accurate interpretation
with which to debunk it.
Existing scholarship of a topic is too simplistic, and an author might add complexity by
examining and evaluating particular details.
Debate on a particular topic might foster yet another perspective which will demonstrate that
one side is more persuasive than another.
Debate on a topic must be recast because the participants are asking the wrong questions or
viewing the issue in an inappropriate way.
A case study of a general historical argument or principle about a topic could provide
reinforcements for that principle, require modifications of it, or negate it entirely.
A test case of a broad interpretation of a large or complex topic would entail a study of one
portion of that larger argument. The results of that test case may reinforce the broad
interpretation, require its modification, or negate it entirely.