There are perhaps two approaches to the use of primary sources in historical research. One method is source-driven, and involves selecting a source or group of sources from a given region and time period and "allowing the content of the source to determine the nature of the enquiry." In other words, follow the sources wherever they lead free of preconceived notions or hypotheses. The second method is problem-based, wherein the historical question is formulated first, usually from reading secondary sources, then primary sources are studied to illuminate the established problem.2
Often when writing a term paper, the exigencies of time and location dictate a combination of these two methods. The limited availability of primary sources may limit your choices, and require selecting ahead of time from the available options. The requirements of class assignments, on the other hand, may require you to respond to a designated issue or historical problem, requiring that sources be leveraged to a desired end. Working closely with your professors and librarians can help you to balance the source-driven and problem-based methods.
2. John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 3rd ed. (New York : Longman, 2000), 55-6.
When reading a primary source, consider the following to evaluate and interpret its content:
How reliable is the author's account? Was the author an eye-witness to the events described? Was the document written immediately, or did some time intervene between the event and documentation? Was the author in a position to fully understand her subject (e.g. European travel writers describing foreign customs)?
What was the author's purpose? Was the document intended to persuade or convince the reader? Was the intent to deliver an impartial recounting of events? Was the document intended only for internal record keeping, as in a business or administrative office?
Who was the author's intended audience? Was the document written for posterity, to present a specific view of the past (e.g. autobiography)? Was the document written for public consumption at the time it was written (e.g. newspapers)? Was the document private, and never intended for the public (e.g. personal correspondence, diaries)? How might the intended audiences influence the author's account?
What is the context of the document? Does the language used have the same meaning now that it did in the past? How or why was the document created? How does the document relate to other contemporary records, and to what we know about the time period and persons involved?
Can your corroborate the source with other evidence? Do other primary sources support your interpretation of the document in question? Can you justify why the document in question may not conform to similar contemporary sources?
Further reading on historical research:
Barzun, Jacques, and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher, 5th ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Call number: D 13 .B334 1992
Bloch, Marc. The Historian's Craft. New York: Vintage Books, 1963 . Call number: D 13 .B56 A6 1963
Donnelly, Mark, and Claire Norton. Doing History. New York: Routledge, 2011. Call number: D 16.2 .D586 2011
Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods, and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Call number: D 13 .T619 2000 (See also the "Further Reading" essay, pp. 215-8)