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Visiting Special Collections

Special Collections at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery

Document analysis introduction

Working with original, primary sources for your research is different from reading a textbook or academic writing about a topic. Instead of reading another scholar's interpretation of an item, you are analyzing the item and forming your own interpretation. This is an exciting aspect of original research and one that we'll try out together in this section.

When you're analyzing or reading a historical document, there are several different levels of interpretation. The National Archives outlines it this way:

  1. Meet the document.
  2. Observe its parts.
  3. Try to make sense of it.
  4. Use it as historical evidence.

In addition to the information conveyed in the document (the facts, stories, or data) it is also important to consider the format of the item, the physical features, the role of the creator, and the intended audience. We'll go over these in more detail below.

Primary vs. Secondary sources video

Need a refresher on what the difference is between primary and secondary sources? Check out this short video:

Key considerations

Two considerations that we emphasize in document analysis is the role of the creator and the original intended audience.

The role of the creator is a key consideration because it will provide historical context and help to place that item within your broader research topic. Consider these two comparisons:

  • Was the creator an observer of an event - or were they a key organizer?
  • Did they participate in a political rally - or were they a leader of an opposing group?

We all carry personal bias in our understanding of the world, and this needs to be included in our analysis of historical documents.

The original intended audience is the person or group that the creator had in mind when they created the item. Who were they imagining would be reading, watching, or listening to their thoughts or actions? This can influence what is and what is not included in a document.

The original intended audience is almost never going to be an undergraduate student in the year 2020 - more likely it was a person's friends and family, or a business correspondent, maybe other participants in a political movement, or the general public. Considering this aspect of the document can help with your interpretation.

 

How do you include these considerations in your analysis?

Let's think about two examples - a personal diary and a published memoir. The creator may be the same for both, but the memoir will also be shaped by the book's editor or publisher, a third party that may have specific motivations.

The original intended audience of the personal diary may be the writer's descendants, or they may hope that no one will ever read it! What they include in their account and how they frame their experience may change depending on who they anticipate reading the diary. The memoir may have a broad, general public intended audience or a more niche group, but either way it is intended to be a public document.

Document analysis example

In this section we are going to look at two examples of letters or correspondence. Images of the letters have been included below; please locate the link to the original digital image location so that you can view the descriptive information as well.

First example:

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Letter: Henry O'Donnell to Elizabeth Sarah (Mousley) O'Donnell, June 27, 1871. Box 1, Folder 23, O'Donnell family papers, Collection 100, Special Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Baltimore, MD).

View the full catalog record, with description and metadata, or see an enlarged image: https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/akop/id/203

Let's take some time to closely examine this item. What are some features that you observe? These could include visual features of the item or the photograph, objects shown, people included, the topic of the photograph, etc. Here are some examples:

  • Hand-written in blue ink
  • Thin paper, you can see the ink bleeding through from the other side
  • There is a stamp or sticker at the top: a crown with an arm holding an arrow. What is the significance of this?
  • Location and date the letter was written is listed at the top
  • June 27, 1871
  • Spouse writing to their wife, "Lally"
  • Informal, personal letter
  • Handwriting is hard to read!

Who is the creator? Who is the intended audience?

The catalog record lists the creator as Henry O'Donnell - this would be a good name to look up during your research. This letter was written to his wife, who he addresses as Lally. The audience was likely only Lally unless Henry anticipated that she would share the letter with other family members.

Let's try another example, this one was included in UMBC's 50th anniversary exhibit:

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Letter: Access from I-95 to UMBC Campus, Walter B. Waetjen, 1972. Box 31, Folder 41, President’s office records, University Archives, Collection 50, Special Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Baltimore, MD).

View the full catalog record, with description and metadata, or to see an enlarged version of the image: https://umbc50.omeka.net/exhibits/show/umbc50/themes/founding/i95access

What are some of the features that you observe?

  • Typed letter, with handwritten signature only
  • Not typed on a computer - probably a typewriter
  • On letterhead paper for the University
  • Looks "official" - formal structure of the message
  • There are two dates. One is the date the letter was written, and another date is stamped at the top. This might be the date the letter was received?
  • At the bottom of the letter there are other names listed after CC. This is similar to using the CC function for an e-mail. Is this Chancellor Lee's copy of the letter?
  • What does WBW: k'or mean? Walter B. Waetjen?

For this item, the creator could be seen as both Walter B. Waetjen and the University of Maryland. He is serving as a representative for the University. Similarly, we can say that the intended audience is both George Lewis and the State of Maryland's Department of General Services. The two names listed under CC could also be part of the audience: Chancellor Lee and Mr. Chisholm. 

Document analysis exercise #1: Japanese American incarceration during WWII

For this assignment, place yourself in the role of a student researching the lives of Japanese and Japanese-American children forced to live in internment during WWII. You will see two images, each from a different project: Dorothea Lange's assignment with the War Relocation Authority, and a similar project by Ansel Adams, both at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Inyo County, California. Each image is accompanied by a detailed descriptive catalog record and a contextual piece of writing.

Use the link below to access the exercise. The forms will be submitted at the end and reviewed (but not graded) by a Special Collections librarian and then forwarded to your professor. There is a comments/questions box at the end of the form.

Document analysis exercise #2: East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project

For this assignment, you'll be looking at four items pulled from one archival collection, the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project papers. A series of questions follow each document; these questions will prompt you to examine the physical and informational features of each item. Consider how you can learn about the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project by examining different item formats like reports, correspondence, photographs, and oral history interview transcripts.

Use the link below to access the exercise. The forms will be submitted at the end and reviewed (but not graded) by a Special Collections librarian and then forwarded to your professor. There is a comments/questions box at the end of the form.

Document analysis exercise #3: Maryland Folklife Program records

To practice some of the concepts outlined above, this exercise uses different formats of material from one collection that all focus on one event. Collection 116, the Maryland Folklife Program records, includes materials produced by Maryland's first state-funded and managed folklife program in the 1970s and 1980s. A major function of the program was to coordinate annual Folklife Festivals. You can learn more about the Maryland Folklife Festivals in the Maryland Folklife Archives research guide

Instructors: The recommended format for this exercise is to divide the students into 5 groups, assigning each group one set of documents. On their own or in a breakout room, the students should then examine their assigned items and complete the provided worksheet.

Optional add-on: Have all students within the same group discuss the assigned set of documents and their worksheet responses.

Optional add-on: Ask each group to share their items to the larger class; if this class is being held asynchronously then the students could write a one paragraph description or film a short video of their reflection.

Optional add-on: Bring the students back together as a full class and have the students brainstorm the facts that they can collect from the different sets of documents: dates, people, places, subjects. This can be done as a class discussion or using a white board program like Google Jamboard (either synchronously or asynchronously depending on the needs of the class).

Document analysis exercise #4: Radical Literature collection

To practice some of the concepts outlined above, this exercise uses different formats of material from one collection. The Radical Literature collection includes 19th and 20th century books, pamphlets, handbills, and other publications of political parties of the left and right. The selected items have strong visual components and reflect topics of social change that are still subjects of discussion today.

Instructors: The recommended format for this exercise is to divide the students into 5 groups, assigning each group one set of documents. On their own or in a breakout room, the students should then examine their assigned items and complete the provided worksheet.

Optional add-on: Have all students within the same group discuss the assigned set of documents and their worksheet responses.

Optional add-on: Ask each group to share their items to the larger class; if this class is being held asynchronously then the students could write a one paragraph description or film a short video of their reflection.

Optional add-on: Bring the students back together as a full class and have the students brainstorm the facts that they can collect from the different sets of documents: dates, people, places, subjects. This can be done as a class discussion or using a white board program like Google Jamboard (either synchronously or asynchronously depending on the needs of the class).

Document analysis exercise #5: Lewis Hine photograph

To practice some of the concepts outlined above, this exercise reviews one Lewis Hine photograph published in different formats: the original photograph print, a digitized reproduction, and a published reproduction. The image comes from the extensive photographic survey of child labor made by Lewis Hine during the early twentieth century. The survey provided reform groups and the public with visual evidence of the negative impact that work had on children. Hine's photographs helped mobilize society against child labor, while providing an extensive record of working children.

Instructors: The recommended format for this exercise is to allow students to work on their own or in small groups, review the three assigned items and complete the provided worksheet.

Optional add-on: Bring the students back together as a full class and have the students brainstorm the facts that they can collect from the different formats: dates, people, places, subjects. This can be done as a class discussion or using a white board program like Google Jamboard (either synchronously or asynchronously depending on the needs of the class).

Optional add-on: Bring the students back together as a full class and have the students discuss how the research experience differed based on the item format. This can be done as a class discussion or using a white board program like Google Jamboard (either synchronously or asynchronously depending on the needs of the class).