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History

Document analysis

For any type of document — a written document, image, map, chart, graph, audio or video — move through the following steps:
  1. Before getting into the content of the document, look at it in a very general sense and ask basic questions. Consider the document’s type: “What kind of document are we looking at?” For example, for textual documents, is it a newspaper, letter, report? For artifacts, what material is this made of? For video, is it a propaganda film, cartoon, training video?
  2. Find unique characteristics of the document (which will vary depending on document type). Note any markings or special qualities. These characteristics will help understand the document in context. For example: Are there any symbols, letterhead, handwritten versus typed text, stamps, seals, or notations? Is there a background, color, or tone? Are there facial expressions in photographs, or other telling features? Is there narration or special effects? Is there a key?
  3. Attempt to identify the creator and the content of the document. Break down the document by asking “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”
  4. Rephrase the document into plain language. Determine the content of the document and speculate for whom and why it was created, in order to understand the document in historical context.

 

--Adapted from Document Analysis with Students from the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration)