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Some Ways of Looking at a Primary Source

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AMS 311, Popular Culture and American Childhood

Some Ways of Looking at a Primary Source

So, you picked your source. You were careful to write a bit of descriptive prose that introduces it to your reader. And you found out as much as you could about its who-what-when-and-where. How do you come up with something analytical to say about it? Historians and American Studies scholars take a number of approaches that help them answer the question “What does it all mean?” Here are some.

In order to get full credit for your website entry, you’ll need to get beyond description and make at least one of these analytical moves.

  1. Find other primary sources contemporaneous with yours that comment on yours. What did people think about your source when it was new? Book/record/movie/TV reviews are great sources for this angle, if your source is the kind of thing that got reviewed.  Sometimes kids’ culture is the object of trend pieces in magazines or newspapers; these pieces can offer you a window into the reactions people had to your object when it first came on the scene.
  2. Find out where your source fits in with other, similar primary sources that came before and after. Say you’re looking at a television show like SpongeBob. If you compare this show to others aimed at the same age group, or made by the same network, or featuring similar characters or setting, before or after SpongeBob was popular, you might find something interesting to say about how the shows’ themes or approaches changed over time. This approach requires that you make the connection between the two objects explicit, in order to establish a basis for comparison.
  3. Find primary sources from NOW that comment on yours. Many objects in kids’ culture have found new life on the Internet, as nostalgic fans tend to keep websites full of minutiae and memories. Scholars like Jenkins often analyze these fan communities in order to see how cultural objects have been received by their publics. If your object inspires this kind of devotion, you could analyze the way that fans remember it.
  4. Find scholarly/secondary sources that have analyzed your source in the past. Has any other scholar done work on Garbage Pail Kids, or (widening the circle a bit) Cabbage Patch Kids, or the artist Art Spiegelman, who drew the artwork for the cards? Your entry could cite this scholarship, summarize its argument, and respond.
  5. Find scholarly/secondary sources that have analyzed other sources like yours, or dealt with themes that your source provokes. Maybe nobody’s written specifically about Garbage Pail Kids, but somebody might have written about trading cards, or disgusting kids’ culture (Gary Cross!), or parody in children’s cultures…you get the idea. Your entry could apply the arguments you find in this scholarship to your own object.

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