Analzying Historical Documents

  • The Nature of Evidence: Historians use a wide variety of evidence to build their interpretations of the past. The discussion below applies to a particular type of evidence called historical documents. Much historical evidence is testimonial or anecdotal. However, other types of evidence, such as experimental and observational, also exist. What do these terms mean? Experimental evidence, common to the natural sciences, often involves the measurement of physical artifacts or processes. Thanks to precise methods and measurements, such data should be replicable. Observational evidence comes from recording data under controlled conditions. Social scientists, for example, can construct experiments for human subjects that measure responses and, like experimental evidence, are replicable.
  • Most historical evidence, however, comes to us from past events. Thus we cannot replicate those past conditions nor provide the level of control present in experimental or observational evidence. That makes the historian's job a bit more difficult but nevertheless, with training and practice, possible. Much historical evidence is anecdotal, "an individual's personal accounts of his or her experiece." Examples include mainly primary sources, such as diaries, letters, transcriptions of conversations or interviews, or memoirs. We valid the reliablity of anecdotal evidence by checking for internal consistency and by gauging its statements against those of other, external evidence. Testimonial evidence comes for someone speaking or writing with authority, expertise, and credentialing. Much testimonial evidence comes from secondary sources, such as authoritative, refereed monographs (journal articles and books). Regardless of the type of evidence confronted, the historian must evaluate its relative strengths and weaknesses. Oliver North's diary [The foregoing discussion owes a debt to Jon Stratton, Critical Thinking for College Students (1999, pp. 243-49). Now on to an evaluation of various types of historical evidence. [Document to the right is a page from Oliver North's diary, admitting that the US-supported contras ran drugs into the US.]

      Physical characteristics and provenance

    1. What type of document are you analyzing? Is it a Newspaper editorial? Map? Government Report? Official Letter? Personal Letter? Memorandum? Telegram? Press Release? Advertisement? Congressional Speech? Other-- specify
    2. If you had an original document, you would also examine it for any unique physical qualities. These might include Interesting letterhead, nature of the handwriting, any seals, notations, or other official stamps.
    3. What is the date of the document? (Dates written, sent, annotated, and received, if applicable)
    4. To whom was the document addressed or for what audience was it prepared?

      Content Analysis

    5. List the author's three most important points.
    6. Why do you think the document was written?
    7. What specific evidence or examples help you determine why it was written?
    8. Identify a question or issue that is left unanswered by the document.

      Tests of Document Reliability

    9. How trustworthy do you consider the document? Does it accurately reflect the historical past? Why or why not? Apply the tests of validity below.
      1. Relevance: Is the evidence presented really relevant to the claim being made?
      2. Recency: Has the situation described by the evidence changed? Just being old isn't enough to disqualify evidence: The situation must have changed since the evidence was published.
      3. Validity: Is the document what it appears to be or is it possibly a fraud or forgery?
      4. Identification: Is the author or source clearly identified? His/her position? title? Historians do not rely on "anonymous" or hearsay.
      5. Expertise: Is the source qualified to provide this evidence? Sources may be qualified by training/education or by experience with the topic of the evidence.
      6. Bias: Does the author have a vestesd interest in the topic of the evidence that might distort the evidence? Reluctant testimony, in which the source testifies against self-interest (e.g., a Republican exposing illegal actions of the Republican Party) is very persuasive. Biased sources do not always distort their evidence.
      7. Internal Consistency: Do various elements of the source remain consistent within itself or does one or more parts contradict other parts?
      8. External Consistency: Is the evidence consistent with outside qualified sources?
      Adoptation and extension of the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, developed by the US National Archives and Records Administration