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Primary Sources: Interpretation

Interpretation is the process of explaining or conceptualizing. It involves helping people understand context and meaning of an item such as a letter, painting, diary, or artifact.

Interpretations means many things depending on the context. The National Park Service defines it as "the process of helping each park visitor find an opportunity to personally connect with a place."

Interpretation is a hotly debated area. Interpreters must be able to understand multiple perspectives and contexts. They must be aware of their potential bias and make clear distinctions between objective and subjective observations. Inferences are made and reasoned explanation of events and issues in past and present are then shared. Concern arises regarding possible bias that can be reflected in the commentary.

Issues in Interpretation

DorothyBefore you jump into interpretation, you need to ask yourself some questions:

Perspective. What's your perspective, bias, or point of view? We all have one. Look at the little girl on the right. Does she mean anything to you? Probably not. However since she's my great grandmother, this photo has special meaning to me.

Context. What's the context of the primary resource? Without a context, this is simply a photograph of a little girl. However if I look at the photo closely (click image on right to enlarge), I can gain important information. For example, Dorothy Sorensen was born in 1888, so this photo was probably taken around 1890. The photo says Frederikke Federspiel, Aalborg. Frederikke Federspiel is a famous female photographer (1839-1913) who had a studio in Aalborg Denmark at that time.

By combining what I see in the photograph and learn from the title of the photograph with what I already know about the person, I can draw some conclusions. This photograph of Dorothy Sorensen was taken around 1890 by Frederikke Federspiel in Aalborg Denmark.

The Process of Interpretation

As you examine your primary resources begin by carefully identifying and analyzing the item. Then, reflect on what you've learned.

Identify. Ask yourself about the primary source itself.

Analysis. Ask yourself the following questions about the primary source.

Reflection. Ask yourself the following questions about your findings.

Elements of Interpretation

As you begin thinking about primary resources, consider some of the following elements.

Introduction. Create an overview of the item and establish your relationship to this source. Provide a chronology of the item including ownership and activities such as transcription.

Chronology. Build a timeline associated with the item. In addition, create a parallel timeline that relates to local, national, and international events. Also, consider tracing the genealogy of the families associated with the item. Use this chronology to help develop an understanding of the time period.

Maps. Explore the locations discussed in the document. Consider visually tracing adventures and activities. Use maps to help develop a context for the place associated with your project.

Relationships. Explore the relationships among the people represented in the document.

Visual Resources. Match visuals such as photographs to people, places, and events in the document.

Multimedia Resources. Consider connecting the arts, books, music, movies and other activities to the resource.

Finding Your Voice

If you're seeking ideas for creative nonfiction writing that can bring primary sources and experience to life, check out the following articles:


Web Resources

Examples of Interpretation

Many examples of interpretation can be found on the Internet. These resources combine primary sources along with experiences, storytelling, and narrative.

Chicago Fire
Explore the great Chicago fire.

Doug Davies, Navigation Researcher
Examines the experiences of Doug Davies as he conducts research related to the arctic explorer Robert E. Perry.

Halifax Explosion explosion/
This Web by award winning web site focuses on the events surrounding the 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia Explosion.

Hudson's Bay Company
Explore the timelines, business, people, places, acquisitions, transportation, social history, and more.

Spy Letters of the American Revolution
Explore stories that incorporate primary source materials.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Explore stories about the file.

Teaching and Learning Interpretation

Digital Classroom

Digital History

Do History


George Mason University

Library of Congress

Metropolitan Museum of Art

National Geographic

Science NetLinks Lessons

University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Learn More


Web Resources

Interpretation: How Could They Think That? The Problem of Worldview from American Journeys
Examines issues of working with historical texts. Also, check out Sensitive Content focusing on issues of racism, vocabulary, sex, slavery, violence, and sexism.

Interpreting Primary Sources
From Spy Letters of the American Revolution, this page provides guidance in interpretation.

National Park Service: Interpretation and Education
Explore resources on park interpretation.

Print Resources

Tilden, Freeman (1957, 1967, 1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. Third Edition. Chapel Hill. ISBN 0-8078-4016-5

Beck, Larry & Cable, Ted (1998). Interpretation for the 21st Century. Sagamore Publishing. ISBN 1-57167-133-1

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