Once you know what primary sources are, you can begin to think like a historian. Just like other investigators, historians ask a lot of questions when they study primary sources.They also gather as many clues as they can about what happened. By analyzing many different primary sources, historians can learn a lot about an event, person, community, or time period.
You can do it too, using Observe-Question-Reflect (adapted from the Library of Congress). Look again at the World War II photograph, then:
Step One: Observe
Look carefully at the primary source. If it’s a document, read it carefully.
- What do you notice first?
- Find something small but interesting.
- What do you notice that you didn’t expect?
- What do you notice that you can’t explain?
- What do you notice that you didn’t notice earlier?
- What words or ideas does this item express?
- What questions do you have about what you see?
Step Two: Question
Now that you have observed the primary source, question it. Looking at the source and description, can you answer the “who, what, when, where, why” questions below?
- Who created this?
- When and where was it created?
- Why was it created?
- What was its purpose/goal?
- Is its message similar or different than other primary sources from that time and place?
Step Three: Reflect
Reflect is another way of saying, “I wonder…”
Here are some “I wonder” questions you can ask about the source.
You can come up with your own questions too.
- What does this source make you wonder about?
- What does this item tell you about that time and place?
- Who was the audience for this item?
- What was the creator’s message?
- What was the creator’s point of view?
- Why does this item matter?
- What else was happening when this was made?
It’s okay if you have a question about the source that you can’t answer right away. You might need to learn more about the topic to help you find answers to your questions.
Now it’s your turn
Use the Observe-Question-Reflect Worksheet to analyze these primary sources from Utah’s past.
This girl (to the right) is standing in front of freshly harvested sugar beets grown in Utah. In one hand she holds a cleaned beet, in the other hand a glass with the amount of granulated sugar one beet yields. Sugar beets were an important cash crop grown in Utah and Idaho. This photo was taken by the Utah Department of Publicity and Industrial Development. The exact date it was created is unknown, but based on the girl’s clothing, we can estimate it was taken during the 1930s.
“I finished the ninth grade, and then my parents, being from Denmark, thought when a boy reached the age of 15, he should earn his own living. So I got a job in the mine loading coal. I used to go into the mine every day and load six three-ton cars and drill three holes, lay my track up to the face and set two timbers one day, and the next day do the same. The mine company would shoot the coal down to you at night. We were paid 79 cents for every ton of coal we loaded.”
Elias Degn’s parents immigrated to Utah from Denmark in 1906. Elias was born in Redmond, a town in Sevier County, in 1908. This is a short excerpt from an oral history interview that Degn recorded when he was 64 years old. In this oral history, Degn shared many memories of what his childhood and adult life was like in Utah’s mining country.
This boy immigrated from Finland to Carbon County, Utah. He worked in the Castle Gate Mine at the age of 9. His job included searching for “bad air” and cleaning up loose coal and animal droppings from the tunnels in the mine. He is wearing a miner’s hat with a lamp, and is holding a pickaxe. This photo was taken around the year 1900.