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How to Analyse Sources

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Historical criticism.-> Original document? How, when, and why did it come into being? Where does it come from? Who is the author or the cartoonist or the cameraman?
2 critical questions: Could the witness possibly have known the truth? Did the witness wish to tell the truth?


Authenticity? (are there factual errors in the source?)
Reliability? (how long after the event was the source produced?)
Subjectivity VS objectivity?
Historians have an issue, the source is problematic (biased, emotions, etc) and the historian is a human writer.
To guard oneself from being manipulated by bias sources, one must cross-reference. This means one must analyse a few sources and then synthesise their own conclusion.


Generally sources can have two characteristics with each other. They are either similar or they are contradictory/different with each other.
One should consider the following aspects when answering these types of exam questions: What are the similarities(1) and the differences(2) between the sources?
How do these sources complement each other(3)?
Which of these sources provides a more accurate viewpoint on the topic(4)?


This is an eight mark question which comes prior to the essay. One is required to write approximately 10-15 lines; in other words one coherent and logical paragraph.
Include a brief context. Have accurate facts. Answer the question! (keep focus).
No sub-headings, no word counts, no personal observations, no political commentaries, no introduction and conclusion.
You need to continually refer to the sources and never copy information directly from a source. If you need to do this rather say, according to Source 2 “….”.
Try to answer the question by referring to the sources one by one. Do not jump around, as this creates confusion and incoherence. Lastly, get to the point. It is merely worth eight marks.



- Self-serving - Often very limited in scope, as it is written by the people themselves. - It is common to find autobiographies one sided, as it is merely from that one persons perception. As people do not often portray themselves critically. - Many autobiographies are self-justifying. They promote that person’s agenda (the one writing the autobiography). They fail to include information on the other side of the story or the information they include is degrading towards the other side. - ALWAYS ANALYSE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY WITH CAUTION, AS NOT ALL FACTS ARE TRUTHFUL, BECAUSE THEY CONTAIN A LOT OF SUBJECTIVITY AND BIAS.

- Generally considered to be more balanced and reliable than autobiographies. - Often the biographer (a person who writes about another person) becomes too close to that person, through spending time with them, interviews etc and distorts the past. They become too admirable of the person they writing about. - Also events become forgotten as time goes by, so it is important to check how long the date of publication is, after the actual event - A biography will have subjective views/opinions and constructed facts, just like a autobiography has. - HANDLE WITH CAUTION AND CRITIQUE ALL BIOGRAPHIES. HOWEVER, THEY ARE VERY PURPOSEFUL AND AN EXCELLENT FORM OF SOURCE/EVIDENCE.

Diaries and Journals

- These two forms of evidence are very crucial for the historian, as they provide details which enable the historian to visualise the past and to lend colour to historical writing. - Must always find out the motive of the diary-keeper. If the person whom has written the diary intends to publish it, often than not they tend be more self-serving, meaning the person wants to promote their agenda (beliefs, perspectives etc). These are less reliable than the diaries which were kept private for personal reasons (Anne Frank).



Convey a social message. Only shows certain information, therefore it reinforces it. A historian needs to remind him/herself that behind every photo is a photographer and a purpose for that photograph. Historians need to acquire knowledge on both aspects prior to making use of a photo, as valid historical evidence.

Good Luck and remember you may apply this information to your heritage Assignment, not just your exams.

-Compiled by Mr E.Moore. Adapted from New Generation Study Guide and General Historical Skills. HSY 104-G. Study Unit 2. UNISA. 2007

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