Primary Source Skills Guide

“Really gives me a better way to start my research so I can find more sources and information for me to better understand the document.”

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?

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

How do I interpret different types of primary source?

We asked students what difference examining primary source documents makes to their study of history:

Sixth Form students on a Sutton Trust visit to the Churchill Archives Centre had this to say:

“Makes the history seem more real and enhances my ability to create my own judgement on the topic instead of being influenced by sources handled by other historians first.”

“It was like seeing a piece of history.”

“Really gives me a better way to start my research so I can find more sources and information for me to better understand the document.”

“Makes you more connected to history and the story behind us.”