Finding and Evaluating Primary Sources
Primary sources are "fundamental, authoritative documents relating to a subject, ...e.g., original records, contemporary documents, etc." (Young, Heartsill, ed. The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science. Chicago: American Library Association, 1983, p.176). Primary source documents are first-hand accounts by a direct participant or observer and may include letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, films, maps, government documents, and more.
For the arts, history, and humanities, original primary source documents usually are housed in museums, archives, restricted library collections, and government offices. Reproductions of primary source documents often can be found in online digital collections, microform collections, books, and other secondary works.
- Using Primary Sources in Your Writing
Instruction and Research Services Committee, History Section, Reference and User Services Association, American Library Association.
When evaluating the credibility of most primary sources, consider these questions:
- Who was the author or creator?
- When did he/she create the source and why? What was its purpose?
- What was the historical (or social, religious, etc.) context in which the source was created?
- Who was the intended audience?
- How does the account compare to that in other sources (both primary and secondary)?
Historian Oscar Handlin advised first considering the language used by the primary source creator and whether meaning and context had changed. Once meaning is clear, what were the creator's capabilities and possible biases?
...consider whether the witness was in a position to know what he was talking about; ...[if] he had the skill and competence to observe accurately; then whether, if he knew the facts, he would be inclined to represent them fairly, or whether circumstances -- emotional, intellectual, political -- might incline him to emphasize some aspects of an episode and minimize others. (p.24)
Handlin, Oscar, et al. Harvard Guide to American History. Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 1954.
The Internet can be a valuable resource for your historical research. However, just as with any other research tool, you must know how to use it critically and effectively. Below are some criteria to consider when evaluating websites and digital collections that contain primary sources.
- Quality of scans of documents and images. Has the integrity of the original image been preserved? Are there mechanisms such as enlarging to enhance the image for better examination? Has the document been transcribed to assist you in reading the handwriting?
- Searchability. Is the text of the documents searchable? Is there also a subject search? As historical concepts are hard to find through a keyword search, a directory or subject listing for a website is useful.
- Bibliography or webliography. Is a list of materials for further research, both print and web-based, included?
- Interpretive or descriptive materials. Are there added materials that help you understand the collection? Since you cannot see the original “box” of materials, how will you get a sense of the whole collection? Is the interpretation by someone who is an authority?
Adapted from The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students (2007), Jenny L. Presnell, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 154-155.