What Is Document Analysis?
What Is Document Analysis?

Early college students need step-by-step instruction on how to understand a primary source. They must acquire and practice foundational skills well before they can learn to pose research questions, search finding aids, or sift through whole boxes from archival collections. That’s why the exercises on TeachArchives.org focus exclusively on modeling item-level document analysis skills to students who are new to archives.

It can be challenging for instructors with extensive experience using primary sources in their own scholarly work to recall what it’s like to be a student who doesn’t yet have the skills and contextual knowledge we educators take for granted.

We encourage instructors to break down the process of analyzing a given document into simple steps, to articulate even the most basic actions (“look,” “read”), and to provide students with ample time. (Always provide more time than appears necessary!) Teachers should create specific prompts tailored to each document instead of recycling the same generic questions often given to students using primary sources.

To help teachers design new in-archives exercises, we have identified the following skills which are integral to successful document analysis:

Make Observations about the Object

Visiting the archives allows students to examine original sources as material artifacts. First, direct students to notice physical characteristics which may convey important clues to understanding the documents before them.1 For example, students may be able to estimate roughly when a document was created by noting the type of paper, style of handwriting, or methods of printing used. Students may be able to determine an item’s intended purpose by looking at its size, or to discern whether it was meant to be treasured or thrown away by assessing the quality of its materials.

These observations can also lead to more complex inferences. A wax seal on a slave bill of sale can reveal important information about how legal documents were authenticated in colonial New York. A jam-packed but neatly indexed scrapbook of hate mail to a well-known abolitionist tells students about how he was viewed by the scrapbook compiler, not just by the correspondents.

Read the Document

It’s obvious to us. But students need to be explicitly instructed to stop and read a document closely, from start to finish – especially when they are first asked to make observations about physical characteristics.

Most primary sources do not lend themselves to the type of superficial scanning we all increasingly do online.2 It’s particularly important to instruct students to read handwritten documents. Deciphering 18th- and 19th-century handwriting requires slow, focused reading. Having small groups work collaboratively to transcribe brief manuscripts forces students to read word by word and prepares them to effectively analyze the source.

In exercises using visual documents, teachers should likewise model the process of looking for students unprepared to “read” visual materials. Directed prompts which do this are especially helpful in courses that do not explicitly practice formal analysis.3

Summarize Information

In our experience, students find summarization extremely challenging, but the archives is a great place to hone this skill. Guided questions in a handout should help students identify important points in the document they are studying. Prompts such as “in your own words” can help students learn to paraphrase.

Visits to the archives ideally end with a wrap-up exercise in which students articulate what they observed, read, and discussed. One way to do this is to have students give an impromptu speech summarizing their experience. The exercise’s time limit pushes students to prioritize important information and set aside less central details.


Students new to archives should, with the right guidance, be able to make initial interpretations of documents. Prompts and wrap ups should guide students to question assumptions, recognize bias, and discern audience. Instead of simply asking generic questions like “what biases are present?,” create a step-by-step experience for students which shows them how to locate that bias. When necessary, provide them with contextual information that they might need to make interpretations, or help them connect secondary materials that they have already read to the documents in front of them.

Pose Questions

Students should identify questions they need to answer in order to more fully understand and use their source. These questions may be as simple as looking up a new vocabulary word or as complicated as trying to understand social norms of a previous era. Consider requiring students to keep a running list of such questions, having students conduct research between visits, or providing illustrative secondary sources alongside archival documents.

Contextualize the Documents

Effective primary source analysis requires synthesizing observations and inferences with contextual knowledge. Instructors must determine ahead of time what information to provide before, during, or after visits to the archives so that students can make meaning of primary source documents.

Of course, students will realize that primary sources often raise more questions than they answer. Faculty with whom we work have observed that visiting the archives makes students more motivated to conduct secondary research than with traditional term paper assignments and that, because of this engagement, students seem more apt to retain the newly-acquired contextual knowledge.

Beyond Document Analysis

Intermediate Analysis Skills

With effective pedagogical design, some early college students may be able to:

  • compare and contrast groups of primary sources
  • use primary sources alongside a secondary source
  • cite primary sources as evidence in an argument

Advanced Archival Research Skills

Only after much practice with document analysis will students be able to:

  • pose research questions which can be answered by primary sources
  • search finding aids and catalogs
  • identify and select archival material to use
  • independently request collections and make appointments
  • look through whole folders or boxes of materials
  • properly cite archival collections without assistance


1) Remind students that they can more accurately determine titles, dates, authors, and more by reading accompanying citations early on in the visit. Talk to archives staff about providing item-level citations for your documents (but remember, instructors should only request a small number of documents for each visit!).

2) Jacob Neilsen, “Why Web Users Scan Instead of Reading,” 1 Oct 1997.

3) For more on formal analysis, see “Understanding Formal Analysis” from the Getty’s education department.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “What Is Document Analysis?,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/document-analysis/.


Julie Golia
Historian / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >
Robin M. Katz
Archivist / Founder and Editor, TeachArchives.org
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >