Visual Primary Sources

Posted By admin On 28/12/21

Whether using primary or secondary sources, in print or online, an essential step in the research process is evaluating your sources. Good scholarship requires careful reading and critical analysis of information.

Basic Evaluation Criteria for All Sources

The following questions were adapted from The Information-Literate Historian by Jenny L. Presnell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Visual Literacy: Making Lessons Accessible and Inclusive Guest Blog Post by Wendy Harris, High School Social Studies & Teacher of the Blind at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota. You want to get your students to work with primary sources, but you have students who struggle with reading English text. Primary sources can include visual sources such as historical artifacts, photographs, or art work produced during the period you are studying. Art, Artifacts, and Photographs.

Author Authority

Visual Materials Primary Sources

  • Who created the item?
  • What is his or her affiliation?
  • What is his or her relationship to the information contained in the source?

Visual Recording Primary Sources

Audience and Purpose

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Why was the item created?

Accuracy and Completeness

  • Is the evidence reliable?
  • Are the important points covered?
  • How does the source compare to other similar sources?

Visual Primary Sources

Footnotes and Documentation

Are the author's sources clearly identified with complete citations to allow you to find the original source yourself?

Perspective and Bias

How do the author's bias and perspective inform the arguments and evidence presented?

Additional Evaluation Criteria for Visual Materials

In addition to the basic questions above, ask the following questions, which were adapted from A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 6th ed. by Mary Lynn Rampolla (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009).


  • Where was the image first displayed or published?
  • Do the angles, lighting, or cropping suggest a particular bias?

Art Works

  • Is it a single work or part of a larger movement?
  • Where was it first displayed and what was the critical reception?


  • In what type of publication was the cartoon published?
  • When? What is the historical significance?
  • What is its message?

A way to spur inquiry and close observation is by examining one quarter of the primary source at a time.This six-minute exercise gives students a chance to focus in on particular details of the source. Having students write notes about each quadrant helps students to generate ideas and text fragments they can use in their writing; the partial view makes it easier for students to make notes without self-criticism. The process is a way to introduce students to the benefits of taking their time when interpreting sources, and to finding tools to delay drawing conclusions before looking closely and noticing as much as possible.

You must choose an image that contains sufficient detail to merit such close analysis. Note that the technique originated among art historians.

Introduce this exercise by showing an image for the first time without a caption or identifying information, for only 60 seconds, asking students to write nothing, just look at the image. After the 60 seconds in which students are shown the whole image, show just one quarter of the image for 60 seconds, and encourage students to write what they see.

Once the six-minute exercise is complete, students can share observations with a partner, and perhaps complete other tasks, depending on the teaching goals. For example:

  • What are the three most important details you and your partner noticed?
  • What was unique in each quarter? How did the divided image differ from the whole?
  • If you were to give this image a title, what would it be?
  • Write a thought bubble for a person in this image? What are they thinking?

In a whole class discussion, partners can share observations. A powerful engagement strategy is for teams to post titles or thought bubbles on the board for all to see. The teacher will decide the right point to share the full citation and any other contextual information for the image. (In example, Library of Congress:

Discussion can turn to the historical particulars of the image, including

  • Who is the audience for this image? Who made it, and why?
  • What other questions do you have about this image? What would you need to know to understand more about it?

The exercise can serve as an introduction to new content or new methods, or as an opportunity to deepen examination of a particular point of view.

Technical note: Create the quartered image in PowerPoint or Google Slides by creating a single rectangular 'shape,' and coloring it black. Copy the slide three times, moving the rectangle to a new quarter.

Analyzing Visual Primary Sources

Civics, English, Geography, U.S. History, World History
Grade Level: