Primary Sources: Evaluating Primary Sources

Help for finding primary source documents on the web and in Neumann Library

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.

Additional resources:

Primary Sources in the Sciences

Remember that in the sciences, primary sources include journal articles that report on original research studies.

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