Evaluating Information Sources: Primary Sources

Provides guidance on evaluating the credibility of information sources, including books, journals, the open Internet, and primary sources.

What is a Primary Source?

handwritten correspondence, a film, and a map

Primary sources:

  • are "fundamental, authoritative documents relating to a subject, ...e.g., original records, contemporary documents, etc."*
  • first-hand accounts by a direct participant or witness
  • are generally uninterpreted with analysis and context provided in secondary source books and journal articles
  • may include letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, films, maps, government documents, field notes, and more

For the natural and social sciences, primary sources include the original account of a research study, typically published as an article in a scholarly journal. Find a fuller explanation in the SUNY Albany and Virginia Polytechnic resources below.

For the arts, history, and humanities, original primary source documents usually are housed in museums, archives, restricted library collections, and government offices. Reproductions often can be found in online digital collections, microform collections, books, and other secondary works.

*Young, Heartsill, ed. The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science. Chicago: American Library Association, 1983, p.176

Evaluation Factors

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.

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