Here is a Sample Secondary Source Analysis Worksheet to reference while filling out your worksheet. Please note that this is a sample, and that your worksheet should be based on another secondary source article from the library guide. Download and complete the Secondary Source Analysis Worksheet for the secondary source that you selected

Analyzing Secondary Sources

Resource Icon Students new to history can feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of historical knowledge and interpretations available. Thousands of books and articles on historical topics are published every year, and it can be difficult to make sense of them all. A search of a library catalog or of the internet will often return multiple works on a particular topic. It is quite rare for a historian to study a topic that has not been studied before. In order to make a project worth the time and energy, the historian must decide how to approach the topic in a way that has not been done before. The first step in doing so is to analyze the existing literature. This will help the researcher see what has been done before, the strengths and weaknesses of the existing literature, and opportunities for future research.

Every literature search starts with a pile of secondary sources. In this learning block, you will learn how to actively read those sources. When you read a source actively, you are looking for specific information that will help you determine whether the source will be useful to your project. The usefulness of the source will depend on many factors: the argument/thesis, supporting evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, strengths, weaknesses, and its relationship to other works on the topic. In the first few books or articles you read, you will be reading for content in addition to analyzing their arguments, strengths, and weaknesses. Once you get to the tenth or twentieth book or article on a topic, you will probably be an expert on the content and can then focus only on the arguments.

There are many ways to analyze a book quickly to determine its argument, use of sources, strengths, and weaknesses. Patrick Rael, a historian of the Civil War based at Bowdoin College, discusses his method in How to Read a Secondary Source. Rael (2004) suggests the following steps:

  1. Read the title and the table of contents. This will provide a very high-level summary of the book’s content and the way it is organized.
  2. Read the book or article from the “outside in.” In a book, start with the preface, foreword, introduction, conclusion, and/or epilogue. In an article, start with the first page or two and the last page or two. Usually the author’s thesis, arguments, and methods will be in those beginning or concluding pages or chapters.
  3. Read each chapter or section from the “outside in.” In most academic works, each chapter or section mimics the organization of the entire book or article. The first and last paragraphs or sentences usually tie that paragraph or section to the larger thesis or argument. Pay attention to topic sentences and transitions.
  4. Read through the entire source actively. Not every paragraph is as important as other paragraphs. Use the topic sentences to determine which paragraphs deserve greater scrutiny.
  5. Take notes on what you have found during this process. If you are familiar with the storyline of the historical event or the source’s content, do not take notes on that. Focus on the book’s thesis, argument, supporting evidence, and presentation style. Note what you think the author does well and what the author does not do well.

Rael (2004) identifies three important questions to ask of every secondary source:

First, what does the author say? What is the author’s argument, and how does the author back it up? Every historian has to tell the audience what happened and why it happened. This is the argument.

Second, why does the author say it? Does the historian have a stake in this issue? Is he or she arguing against another historian?

Third, where is the author’s argument weak or vulnerable? No historical interpretation is absolutely correct. That is the nature of history. But historians try to make their interpretations convincing. Did the author succeed in making the argument convincing?

In this learning block, you will learn how to actively analyze a secondary source using a secondary source analysis worksheet. This is not a universally recognized tool among historians. Many historians use different formats, but they are all pursuing the same information and analyses. A completed worksheet will not get published anywhere. It is a good method of organizing your analysis, though, and will be valuable when you write your remaining projects.


Rael, P. (2004). How to read a secondary source. In Reading, writing, and researching for history: A guide for college students. Retrieved from…

Resource: Sample Secondary Source Analysis Worksheet

Resource Icon Review this worksheet, which analyzes the secondary source by Louis Morton on the decision to use the atomic bomb. Notice that the questions in this worksheet for analyzing secondary sources are the same questions referenced in the overview. Choosing a Secondary Source other than what is used in the sample, you will complete a Secondary Source Analysis Worksheet at the end of this learning block, related to your work on Project 2. Access this resource by clicking the “Click to Launch” link above.
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