Using Historical Sources

Student Guides

By Melanie Jones

How Do I Use Sources?

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The sources that you are likely to come across at A-Level will be either images or written sources and are usually primary (written or made at the time of study). You will simply need to remember the skills that you have been developing since year 7! Think of the 5 Ws that you might have learned lower down the school – they will help:

  • Who – Who made the source - did they have an opinion or bias? Were they involved?
  • What  What information does the source give? Is it the full story? Is it accurate?
  • Why Why was the source made? Was it made to persuade people of a particular opinion? Was it made to take the mickey out of something/someone?
  • When Was it made at the time? Or years later? Was the person there?
  • Where Where was the source made? Were they involved in the event? Did they have an opinion?

For both written and image sources, it is unlikely you will be able to answer all of these questions. However, you should try to address the basic areas of analysis: author, audience, bias, purpose, context, motivation and validity  the who, what where, when, why and how of it all. Below are specific questions to help you analyze and answer your question. 

Source interpretation: written sources

Identify the source. Is it primary or secondary? Who wrote it? When was it written? What kind of document is it? Where was it published? How widely was it circulated? What is it about?

Put it in its context. What events had happened or were happening when this was written? Specifically, what was happening where this was written? Who was the intended audience and what bias might they have had?

Consider the author and their purpose. Who was the author? Consider their race, gender, religion, nationality, heritage, party affiliation, socio-economic class, and their job. Is there bias? Is the author trying to persuade, incite, enlighten, explain or deceive their audience? Why was it written and for whom? Was the author paid to write this? Or bribed or threatened? Where did it first appear: a newspaper, a diary, a letter or a propaganda flyer?

Evaluate the information. Read the information, summarize it, and identify keywords, examples of bias and intention. Are there footnotes or citations? Does it reference other documents or events? What is the document about and how does that help you understand the period? What is the overall theme? How similar is it to other documents from the same period? How does the author claim to have their information? What assumptions does the author make? Is the author expecting any resulting action, sentiment or opinion from the audience? 

Source interpretation: image sources

Identify the source. Was the artist an eyewitness or is this image secondary? Who created it? When was it created? What medium is it? What is it portraying? Where was it published? Who would have seen this image?

Put it in its context. What events had happened or were happening when this was created? Specifically, what was happening where this was created? How long after the actual event portrayed was the image created? Who was the intended audience and what bias might they have had?

Consider the artist/creator and their purpose. Who was the artist? Consider their race, gender, religion, nationality, heritage, political point of view, socio-economic class, and their job. Is there bias? Are certain people or places portrayed in a more positive light? Is the artist trying to persuade, incite, explain to or deceive their audience? Why was this image created and for whom? Was the artist paid to do his work? Or bribed or threatened? What does that tell you? Where did it first appear: a newspaper, a diary, a letter or a propaganda flyer?

Evaluate the information. Look at the image, understand what is being portrayed, and identify the main focus and points of interest. Is there a caption or a title? Is it captured in a particular style? If yes, what associations can you make with this style? What does the scenery, the action, the people and the details tell you about this period in time? What is the overall theme? How similar is it to other images from the same period? If it is unusual for its period, why might the artist have chosen to be different? What assumptions does the author make? Is the author expecting any resulting action, feeling or opinion from the audience?

Remember... you are being tested on your ability to analyse sources. You won't be expected to know minor details of the architecture in a photo and you won't necessarily know the class and religion of an author. Use the information you are given in the source, recognize and detect in the source. Your own knowledge of the period of time should add to the source evidence you have before you in answering a question. 

Tips for Analysing Political Images 

Techniques used by cartoonists

  • Symbolism – using an object to stand for an idea.
  • Caricature exaggerating a physical feature or habit: big nose, bushy eyebrows, large ears, baldness.
  • Captioning and labels used for clarity and emphasis.
  • Analogy a comparison between two unlike things that share some characteristics.
  • Irony the difference between the way things are and the way things should be or the way things are expected to be.
  • Juxtaposition positioning people or objects near each other, side-by-side.
  • Exaggeration overstating or magnifying a problem.


  • Cartoonists use simple objects, or symbols, to stand for larger concepts or ideas.
  • After you identify the symbols in a cartoon, think about what the cartoonist intends each symbol to stand for.


  • Sometimes cartoonists overdo, or exaggerate, the physical characteristics of people or things in order to make a point.
  • When you study a cartoon, look for any characteristics that seem overdone or overblown. (Facial characteristics and clothing are some of the most commonly exaggerated characteristics.) Then, try to decide what point the cartoonist was trying to make through exaggeration.


  • Cartoonists often label objects or people to make it clear exactly what they stand for.
  • Watch out for the different labels that appear in a cartoon, and ask yourself why the cartoonist chose to label that particular person or object. Does the label make the meaning of the object clearer?


  • An analogy is a comparison between two unlike things that share some characteristics. By comparing a complex issue or situation with a more familiar one, cartoonists can help their readers see it in a different light.
  • After you've studied a cartoon for a while, try to decide what the cartoon's main analogy is. What two situations does the cartoon compare? Once you understand the main analogy, decide if this comparison makes the cartoonist's point clearer to you.


  • Irony is the difference between the ways things are and the way things should be, or the way things are expected to be. Cartoonists often use irony to express their opinion on an issue.
  • When you look at a cartoon, see if you can find any irony in the situation the cartoon depicts. If you can, think about what point the irony might be intended to emphasize. Does the irony help the cartoonist express his or her opinion more effectively?

Once you've identified the persuasive techniques that the cartoonist used, ask yourself:

  • What issue is this political cartoon about?
  • What is the cartoonist's opinion on this issue?
  • What other opinion can you imagine another person having on this issue?
  • Did you find this cartoon persuasive? Why or why not?
  • What other techniques could the cartoonist have used to make this cartoon more persuasive?

Examples of Symbols used in Political Cartoons

  • Peace dove, olive branch, victory sign
  • United States  Uncle Sam, flag, stars and stripes, shield
  • Democrats  donkey
  • Republicans  elephant
  • Death vulture, skeleton with shroud, skull and crossbones, Grim Reaper
  • Love heart, Cupid, Venus
  • Money dollar/pound bill or $/£ sign
  • Heroes or good guys wear white
  • Villains or bad guys wear black
  • Communism  star and sickle
  • Communist  person wearing a flat cap
  • Victims/ oppressed  will appear smaller than aggressors
  • Military action  sword/weapons
  • Friendship/peace or youth  flowers

Steps in Analyzing a Political Cartoon

  1. Identify the characters, symbols and objects in the cartoon.
  2. Look for clues and details that would give further meaning.
  3. Identify the main idea of the cartoon by reading the captions and putting the message into their own words.
  4. Identify any bias the cartoonist might have.

Suggested Questions:

  1. What is the event or issue that inspired the cartoons?
  2. What background knowledge do you need to understand the message?
  3. Are there any real people in the cartoon?
  4. Did the artist use caricatures?
  5. Are these symbols in the cartoons?
  6. What is the cartoonist's opinion about the topic portrayed?
  7. Does the caption help you understand the message?
  8. Do you agree or disagree with the cartoonist's option? Why?

Use the above when looking at the following cartoon:

"The New Protector"


  • Hitler acts as a worried parent or authority figure
  • Hungary/Poland: bullies
  • Czechoslovakia: defenceless child, needs Hitler

To note:

  • Czech: dressed in a very German outfit.
  • Czech: actually labelled Ruthenia


  • Czechoslovakia was bullied by Germany (and Western powers) into ceding the Sudetenland because of the ethnic Germans in the area.
  • Loss of the Sudetenland made Czechoslovakia extremely susceptible to German occupation.
  • The bullies (Poland and Hungary) were soon after invaded by Germany. This is the satire/irony of the cartoon.

Have a look the following photograph:

Hyperinflation - Germany 1923

This is a photograph taken in 1923 of a man using German banknotes as wallpaper. There are also similar images of children using bundles of banknotes as building bricks.

How far does this photograph explain why Germany faced difficulties in 1923? Use the source and your knowledge to explain your answer. 




  • Hyperinflation: banknotes are worthless
  • Money being used as wallpaper or a toy shows how worthless it was.
  • Mass amount of banknotes shows just how much money was in circulation and that, even in enormous amounts, it was worthless.



  •  Munich Putsch
  • Invasion of the Ruhr



Own Knowledge



  • Munich Putsch: open opposition and violence toward the Weimar government 
  • Invasion of the Ruhr: decrease in production due to loss of control to French and Belgians


The source shows one difficulty, hyperinflation, facing Germany in 1923. The man using banknotes as wallpaper and German children playing with banknotes shows just how worthless the money was and so it has been reduced to a toy. The source indicates just how much money was in circulation and further underlines how worthless German money was, even in mass quantities. However, the source does not show the repercussions of hyperinflation on ordinary German citizens such as unemployment, loss of savings and general financial struggle.

In addition, this source does not explain two other reasons Germany faced difficulty in 1923: the Munich Putsch and the invasion of the Ruhr. The source does not indicate the difficulties of the invasion of the Ruhr, when the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr, a major German industry centre, because the Germans had failed to make a reparations payment in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles. German workers, supported by the Weimar government, went on strike but passive resistance only exacerbated the issue. As the source shows, the government's response was to print more banknotes which became virtually worthless. Besides the invasion of the Ruhr, the source also doesn't show the Munich Putsch, a third difficulty in Germany in 1923. When Hitler tried to take over the government by force, it was a clear act of violence and open opposition to the Weimar government and, quite obviously, the Munich Putsch and its leaders were never properly dealt with, something the source gives no indication of.

Therefore, the source shows a limited extent of the problems Germany faced in 1923, demonstrating the issue of hyperinflation without showing the impact on ordinary German lives, and with absolutely no indication of the invasion of the Ruhr or the Munich Putsch.