Reading Historical Sources Effectively

History plays a huge role both in research and in our everyday lives. Research looks at historical sources as evidence and a window to a time past while our everyday present proves to be the product of the past, shaped by what has happened before. This makes understanding historical sources such as diaries, newspapers, journals and even works of literature paramount in having a better understanding of a topic. There are, however, things to look out for when navigating through historical sources to make it effective.

Here are several tips!


Anachronism refers to an inconsistency in chronology. It’s the insertion of an object, person or custom of a different time period to the time period being depicted in a piece of work, often times a more modern item thrust into the world of the past. This form of anachronism is mostly seen in media, in art and in literature. Take, for example, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It mentions a clock striking three even though clocks that ‘strike’ did not exist in Caesar’s time and was only being invented over 1300 years after.

An obvious example of anachronism in art
(Source: McCutcheon, 2013)

In reading literature as historical sources, this means fact checking the literary sources written after the time period it describes lest it creates a misconception in your understanding of who or what existed in that period of time.

Anachronism is also something a person can apply – most of the time unknowingly – to any historical sources they read. This is because languages and the meaning of words change with time. When this is not taken into account, it is too often assumed that the concepts being read means the same back then as it does now. This leads to the misunderstanding of the nuances of the sources. Therefore, you need to be careful to avoid imposing contemporary understanding of a concept to its use and those who use it in the past.

Reading Critically

It’s all about the questions (source: istockphoto)

Knowing who wrote the historical sources and why can give insight into the implicit meanings in the text by providing much needed contexts. Every person’s point of view is different and the way they write is influenced by their experiences, knowledge, opinion and intention. For example, when reading about a bill being proposed to the Parliament, ‘who wrote the bill’, ‘what does it intend’ and ‘who is to gain from the bill going through’ are questions that need to be asked.

Another thing to look out for in reading historical sources is the gaps in information. What information did we expect but they fail to note? What did they omit and why? Absences and silences can be just as telling as the written words themselves.

Newspapers and books as primary and secondary sources
(source: shutterstock)

Next, understanding the historical sources themselves aids in understanding their contents. Historical sources created closer to an event are primary sources of information and are often first-hand accounts while secondary sources are materials that are written some time after and reference primary sources. Secondary sources such as books, documentaries and reflections contain an analysis and interpretation of the event. Primary sources like diaries and immediate reports are often seen as the ideal source of information. However, it is important to realise that it is not unbiased – no work is completely free of bias – which is why critical reading of historical sources is necessary.

Primary Vs Secondary Sources (source: Tan Jean Minn, 2020)

Literature as the History of the Everyday

Literary works of authors in the past are able to reflect the thoughts, opinions, and culture of their time via the language and phrases they use. As a historical source, it is used to understand how people lived in that time period, looking towards the mundane everyday on-goings as opposed to singular life changing events. This can be studied using corpus linguistics – the study of languages based on a large collection of text. The corpus could be a single author’s whole body of work, and through corpus linguistics, language patterns ­– such as word repetitions and co-occurrences of words together – can provide insights to cultural patterns, social tropes and word usage of historical significance.

So Go Forth!

With these tips in hand to help you, your research using historical sources should be more effective. Good luck!

Written by Jamie Tan Jean Minn