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Module 3: How to use primary sources

Step 4: The meaning.
What does it tell you?

Once you've looked over the document to try and determine what it is, who its creator was, and the time and place of its creation, it's time to figure out what the document might tell you about the topic you're researching.

If it is a written or audio document:

Read through or listen to the document carefully. What does it say? What information does it provide about your topic that you didn’t know before? Also pay attention to what you don’t understand – terms, people, places, events that are mentioned that you don’t recognize.

If it is a picture or moving image:

Examine it carefully. What is represented? If there are people in the picture what are they doing? Are they posing for the picture? What is the relationship between the artist/photographer and the subject? What places, buildings, natural surroundings, signs, or other objects are in the picture? What was going on when the picture was taken (drawn, painted, videotaped, etc.) Also pay attention to what you don’t recognize: buildings, objects, people, etc.

Write it down

Write down what you learned from the document and what questions it prompts for further research. What is the significance of this document for the historical question you're researching?

You may also want to make a list of the names, events, places, objects, etc., that are unfamiliar to you. You can use this list to do more background research to understand the document better and what it can tell you about the past events in question.

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telegram

This brief document may prompt more questions than answers. What is scarlet fever? How did people gain immunity to it? Was quarantine for this illness common on college campuses at this time? Was it affecting other populations on the UIUC campus? Why did Molly Jean send a telephoned telegram rather than just making a phone call?

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