Guidelines for Evaluating Primary Documents
Carefully evaluate and analyze primary documents that you work with to understand each document's value and limitations, detect the biases embedded in each document, and glean the information that you need from each source. To understand the value and limitations of a source, try to answer the following questions: Is this source a firsthand account, written by a witness or participant? Was it written at the time of the event or later? Is the account based on interviews or evidence from those directly involved?
Be alert to the biases imbedded in primary sources. Every document is biased, whether deliberately or unconsciously, by the point of view of the person who wrote it. Determine as much as possible about the author of the document and his or her relationship to the events and issues described. Did the author have a stake in how an event was remembered? Did he or she want this issue to be perceived in a particular way? Also consider for whom the document was created. Was the author writing for a specific audience? Was the document meant to be private, like a diary; to communicate with a small audience, like a letter or internal report; or to reach a bigger audience, like a speech or a published autobiography? Take note of the author's vocabulary. What judgments or assumptions are imbedded in his or her choice of words?
Compare the accounts of one event provided by different primary sources to evaluate the reliability of each document. When sources conflict, consider possible explanations for the differences. When they concur, the account provided may be more accurate - especially if the authors have different points of view. Do not assume that one type of document is necessarily more reliable than another. A published newspaper article, for example, may reflect the biases of a reporter or editor. An impassioned speech may contain kernels of factual information.
Working with primary sources offers a remarkable window into other worlds, as well as an opportunity to construct your own vision of the past. Careful evaluation and interpretation of those sources is at the core of the historian's craft.
Source: Bedford/St. Martin's website
Tips to follow
When evaluating primary or secondary sources, ask the following questions:
- How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
- Where does this information come from - personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
- Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts...)?
What about information I find on the Web?
There are billions of pages of information on the Web, placed there by people and organizations with many different goals and agendas. Books, journals, newspapers, and other print sources have editors to oversee the quality of their content, but much of the information published on the Web has not been formally reviewed. Archives, manuscript collections, historical societies and museums are making more and more primary source material available online, either as scanned images, transcripts, photographs, sound files, or other formats. In order to make the best use of primary source material on the Web, it is important to evaluate sources carefully. The following criteria can help:
- What is the origin of the document or artifact? Who created it?
- Where is the original located? Does the repository provide information about the item's "provenance," or history? (Reputable institutions always do this.)
- What type of Web site has posted it (.com, .edu, .gov, .org, etc.)?
- What do others say about the site? Has it been reviewed? (Some sites to check for reviews are The Internet Scout Report, http://scout.wisc.edu/, and The Public History Resource Center, http://www.publichistory.org/).
- Do other sites link to it? (Google has a feature that allows you to check this. Go to http://www.google.com/help/features.html#link and follow the instructions under "Who Links to You?")
- What is the format of the document? Is it a scan of the original? A transcription? An image?
- If it's a transcription, how was it transcribed? Is the original available for comparison? Optical character recognition (OCR) scans are done by machine and frequently contain errors, as do transcripts done by voice recognition software (VRS).
- Does the document make sense in light of other available information?
- Are there references and/or links to related collections or descriptive information?
- Is the content clearly explained? Are there guides or "finding aids" that provide help with navigation?
- Is special software required to view the contents of the site? Is that software freely available or must it be purchased?
- Is there a fee for viewing documents or other items?
- Who is responsible for the Web site? Is there contact information?
- What is the mission of the sponsoring institution? Why does it exist?
- Is there an "about" link to information about the institution? Does that information indicate a bias or an agenda?
- Is the content of the site balanced? Are documents omitted that you would expect to be included? Are materials used in a way that is meant to present a particular point of view?