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Evaluating Sources: Primary and secondary sources

An overview of evaluating sources, including strengths of different source types.

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

Primary Source: a document or physical object written or created during the time under study. They offer an inside view on an event.
   - Original Documents such as a diary, speech, interview, official record, autobiography, newspaper articles from the time period being studied
   - Creative Works such as poetry, novels, music, artwork.
   - Relics or Artifacts such as pottery, furniture, clothes, buildings.

Secondary Source: interprets or analyzes primary sources. These are one or more steps removed from the event. They may have pictures quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.
   - Publications such as textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias.

Tertiary Source: compile and distill primary sources, secondary sources, or both.
    - almanacs, encyclopedias, Wikipedia, index, bibliographies.

(Adapted from http://www.princeton.edu/~refdesk/primary2.html)

 

Examples

PRIMARY SECONDARY
an interview with Theodore Roosevelt a book about Theodore Roosevelt
a short story a literary criticism
an autobiography (written by the person the book is about) a biography (written by someone else about a person)
a speech commentary on a Booker T. Washington speech

Regarding Source Criticism

  • Human sources may be relics (e.g. a fingerprint) or narratives (e.g. a statement or a letter). Relics are more credible sources than narratives.

  • The closer a source is to the event which it describes may give an accurate description of what really happened. This might be true of a scientific research study. However, it might not be true of an autobiography which is a person's accunt and interpretation of their own life.

  • A primary source is often more reliable than a secondary source, which in turn is more reliable than a tertiary source..

  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.

  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness (or source) has no direct interest in creating bias, the credibility of the message is increased.
  • Knowledge of source criticism cannot substitute subject knowledge: the more you know about the subject, the more precisely you can identify what you must still find out.depends on your topic.

  • Source reliability depends on your topic - it's situational. For example, a biased website might be inappropriate for one topic but completely appropriate for another.

(Adapted from from two textbooks on source criticism, Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997) written by historians and Wikipedia.)

Searching for Primary Sources

Primary sources are sometimes collected and re-published as books. There are a number of these collections in the Library and you can use the catalog to search for them. Try a keyword search using words to describe your subject in combination with a term to describe the source.

Some terms that might work in combination with your subject are: correspondence; diary or diaries; interview or interviews; letters; speeches; personal narrative; memoirs; autobiography; laws; treaties; documents; maps; or papers.