Opening windows, unlocking doors: How to read primary sources in history

Starting tomorrow, I will be guiding my students through some primary sources in Asian history. We begin with The Code of Hammurabi, then next week we take a look at the Enuma Elish, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Zoroastrian’s Avesta.

I’ve recently gotten into reading all of these primary sources after learning and reading about most of them from secondary sources over the past years. It has also been a while since I’ve looked at these, and they feel like revisiting an old friend. I am so glad that I’ve finally reexplored the text, as it reignited my love for history as just history.

Here are some tips for my students exploring the text. I recognize that this is the first time many of you are actually dealing with primary sources. It may be a little challenging since this may feel like we’re reading literature but we’re not. Historical literacy is a little different.

When you first read the text, focus on your impressions. Grasp only what you can comprehend and try to rebuild a picture based on what you’ve understood. Read the text again and again, rebuilding more pieces every time.

Be very aware of the time and place these texts were written, and don’t be surprised if they don’t follow modern rules of grammar. Then be aware of what voice the piece is written in. Chances are, it’s in the first person. So figure out who is speaking and to whom.

This is one of the biggest differences between reading a piece of literature and a piece of history: the original speaker/writer addresses a contemporary, and not us modern readers. Therefore, it is us who must go to them. We must understand where they are coming from, what they’re alluding to (because they assume that the person they’re speaking/writing to knows what they’re talking about), and what the purpose of the exposition is.

Engaging a primary source is about rebuilding, not reinterpreting (which we often do in literature). Interpreting comes once we have placed the primary source in its historical context and begin discussing its place in civilization and history.

Primary sources are a lot of fun to engage since we know the information comes to us in its purest form. None the less, it is inevitable for us modern readers to divorce ourselves from our modern notions and biases, and this is the most challenging part of reading a primary source. But stepping out of our shoes and into theirs is only the beginning of the journey. And as you’ll soon discover, there is still so much to go!



One thought on “Opening windows, unlocking doors: How to read primary sources in history

  1. Great Reasons to read and how to on Sources. I teach history in the US and i love exposing students to them to show them the feelings and ideas of the past. I think it shows them the real past not what is in a history book.

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