Primary Source Skills Guide
This guide will be especially useful for helping students to meet the source skills requirements of various history examinations and courses including GCSE, A-level , United States AP and IB History.
Antique wooden storage boxes in a Archive. (Nikada, Getty Images)
What is an archive?
Unlike textbooks where an author tells you what happened in the past, an archive contains the building blocks of history: primary sources. These are items that were produced in the past by people living at the time. They are incredibly useful for anyone trying to understand that past.
What counts as a primary source?
Primary sources may include:
- Personal diaries
- Newspaper clippings
- Government documents
- Audio content
- Video content
- and much more
By exploring these sources, you can gain a sense of the past through the words, images, sounds and objects of the people who lived it.
Why are archives useful?
Primary source research lets you piece together the past from a collection of documents. As a history student this is valuable practice in the techniques which historians use. You could regard it as practical work, similar to piecing together a puzzle, reading a book in a foreign language or practising a musical instrument.
Working with archives allows students to form independent opinions about history. Authors writing textbooks have to select particular sources from archives in order to make their work manageable. These selections support the author’s interpretations of events or judgements about what was significant. Using archives and primary sources allows students to challenge textbook accounts and provides them with a glimpse of the insights and perspectives which are sometimes missing from the textbooks.
Archive sources can be more personal as well. Textbooks can tell you what happened, but archive sources often reveal much more about how people at the time felt about what happened, or how they reacted to events. Remember that this means that primary sources can be unreliable as they reflect that person’s opinion and biases so it is important to check them against the facts. However, this unreliability can tell us more about the person and their own interpretation of events which could be linked to their personal background and experience.
What is the Churchill Archive useful for?
1. Learning about Churchill
The Churchill Archive provides unprecedented access to materials about Churchill and his life.
Churchill played a crucial role in the history of the United Kingdom and the world. He led his country through the tumultuous period of World War II, an event that resulted in dramatic changes in politics, technology, economics and culture and shaped the rest of the twentieth century.
2. Learning about topics in world history
The Churchill Archive can also be used to learn about topics beyond the life of Churchill himself.
Political and Military Themes
Researchers can explore political themes in British and international history, including the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War and Empire and Imperialism. Parliamentary records, speeches, and correspondence shed light on the allegiances, personal thoughts, and emotions of the numerous political leaders mentioned in the documents, including the birth of the ‘Special Relationship’ between Britain and the USA. Wartime maps and telegrams detailing wartime strategies are also useful for anyone studying military history.
Science and Technology
There was a rapid development in scientific discovery throughout the twentieth century. These technological advances led to great breakthroughs in industry and warfare, including the Atomic Bomb. There are many documents in the Archive which show correspondence about these developments from key figures in the period, including Churchill, President Truman and later President Eisenhower.
Women’s suffrage became a key topic for debate by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Researchers can explore this by reading documents including comments on Suffragette disturbances in 1905 and Churchill arguing for a referendum on votes for women in 1911. You can also discover more about the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and women in the military, as well as fascinating documents on women in the workplace which consider equal pay for women and correspondence between Churchill and his constituents.
When Churchill was a Member of Parliament, everyday citizens often wrote to him about issues that were important to them. As a result, these letters offer insight into the lives of British people throughout Churchill’s political career, and they are useful sources for anyone studying topics from healthcare to social reform and poverty relief.
Find Out More
Ask the Archivist
Why study Winston Churchill?
Reading Primary Sources from LEARN NC at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
How do I interpret different types of primary source?
Choose from the types of primary source below to explore detailed examples that show useful ways to interpret each category, with handy tips and questions to ask yourself: