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G08: I&S Innovators: OPVL

Innovation leads to paradigm shifts in society

What is OPVL

Using OPVL With Documents Guide
A Guide for Using Primary Source or Original Source Documents

OPVL: Origins, Purpose, Values, Limitations
Origin, Purpose, Value and Limitation (OPVL) is a technique for analyzing historical documents. It is used extensively in the International Baccalaureate curriculum and testing materials, and is incredibly helpful in teaching students to be critical observers. It is also known as Document Based Questions (DBQ).


In order to analyze a source, you must first know what it is. Sometimes not all of these questions can be answered. The more you do know about where a document is coming from, the easier it is to ascertain purpose, value and limitation. The definition of primary and secondary source materials can be problematic. There is constant debate among academic circles on how to definitively categorize certain documents and there is no clear rule of what makes a document a primary or a secondary source.


  • Primary – letter, journal, interview, speeches, photos, paintings, etc. Primary sources are created by someone who is the “first person”; these documents can also be called “original source documents.” The author or creator is presenting original materials as a result of discovery or to share new information or opinions. Primary documents have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by others. In order to get a complete picture of an event or era, it is necessary to consult multiple—and often contradictory—sources.
  • Secondary – materials that are written with the benefit of hindsight and materials that filter primary sources through interpretation or evaluation. Books commenting on a historical incident in history are secondary sources. Political cartoons can be tricky because they can be considered either primary or secondary.
  • Other questions must be answered beyond whether the source is primary or secondary and will give you much more information about the document that will help you answer questions in the other categories:

1. Who created it?
2. Who is the author?
3. When was it created?
4. When was it published?
5. Where was it published?
6. Who is publishing it?
7. Is there anything we know about the author that is pertinent to our evaluation?


This is the point where you start the real evaluation of the piece and try to figure out the purpose for its creation. You must be able to think as the author of the document. At this point you are still only focusing on the single piece of work you are evaluating.

  • Why does this document exist?
  • Why did the author create this piece of work?
  • What is the intent?
  • Why did the author choose this particular format?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Who was the author thinking would receive this?
  • What does the document “say”?
  • Can it tell you more than is on the surface?


Now comes the hard part. Putting on your historian hat, you must determine: Based on who wrote it, when/where it came from and why it was created … what value does this document have as a piece of evidence? This is where you show your expertise and put the piece in context. Bring in your outside information at this point.

  • What can we tell about the author from the piece?
  • What can we tell about the time period from the piece?
  • Under what circumstances was the piece created and how does the piece reflect those circumstances?
  • What can we tell about any controversies from the piece?
  • Does the author represent a particular ‘side’ of a controversy or event?
  • What can we tell about the author’s perspectives from the piece?
  • What was going on in history at the time the piece was created and how does this piece accurately reflect it?


The task here is not to point out weaknesses of the source, but rather to say: at what point does this source cease to be of value to us as historians?

With a primary source document, having an incomplete picture of the whole is a given because the source was created by one person (or a small group of people), naturally they will not have given every detail of the context. Do not say that the author left out information unless you have concrete proof (from another source) that they chose to leave information out.

Also, it is obvious that the author did not have prior knowledge of events that came after the creation of the document. Do not state that the document “does not explain X” (if X happened later).

Being biased does not limit the value of a source! If you are going to comment on the bias of a document, you must go into detail. Who is it biased towards? Who is it biased against? What part of a story does it leave out? Sometimes a biased piece of work shows much about the history you are studying

  • What part of the story can we NOT tell from this document?
  • How can we verify the content of the piece?
  • Does this piece inaccurately reflect anything about the time period?
  • What does the author leave out and why does he/she leave it out (if you know)?
  • What is purposely not addressed?

This is again an area for you to show your expertise of the context. You need to briefly explain the parts of the story that the document leaves out. Give examples of other documents that might mirror or answer this document. What parts of the story/context can this document not tell?

Source: IB Higher Level History of the Americas & Honor's 10 English

Sources & OVPL

The following grid can help you understand OPVL by various types of sources


Type of Document






Primary, by author for author, rarely published

To keep memories for later (sometimes with eye to publication)

Eyewitness to event and usually written immediately or shortly after occurred, rarely lies to oneself

Only one person’s view, there will be perspective issues, may be intended for publication therefore can even lie to oneself


Primary, by author or interviewee

To offer an eyewitnesses’ perspective on an event


Length of time between events and recollection can lead to loss of info, or changing of story, always perspective issues to be considered


Usually by expert (often academic historian)

To educate colleagues, students, and the public (can be for monetary gain or promotion file)

Usually many years of primary research in archives and thorough knowledge of secondary works on topic

Always perspective issues, usually not an eyewitness, can err deliberately or accidently, not vey useful for quick overview since it will contain many pages of extraneous issues

General Text

Secondary, usually done by a panel of experts on country or topic

To educate students

Offers quick overview for student seeking quick information

Usually NOT an expert on every topic in text so there may be gaps and errors, may be too brief


Primary, done by artist for public at that time

To educate, entertain, and often to sell newspapers or magazines

Offer at least one person’s perspective on issue of the time, event

Don’t know how widespread it is, often exaggeration is used for comic effect



For public usually

Offers official view of speaker, it is what audience hears

May not be real views of the speaker, speeches are designed to sway opinion

Internal Memo


For internal examination amongst officials or government departments

Usually do not lie, so it is official view (as a speech) but private thoughts are often given too

Do not know what outsiders know, only what officials are saying to each other, may be fabricated


Source: Florida University