Evaluating Primary and Secondary Sources

Let’s start with the easiest definition of primary vs secondary sources.  Primary sources are sources from where or when an event happened, or from a person who was involved in or witnessed an event.  Secondary sources are sources from those who were not involved, were not there, and often did not live in that time.

 Primary & Secondary Sources

Examples:

The journal of a civil war soldier at Gettysburg would be a primary source about Gettysburg.
A newspaper article about the battle of Gettysburg would be a secondary source about Gettysburg.

 

But it can get more complicated.  What about interviews?  What about newspaper articles?  They can both be both.  An interview can be both primary and secondary in the same interview, but about different topics.  A newspaper article could be either one.  What about news bloggers?  If they were in the event, then their blog post might be a primary source.  How about a documentary?

When you’re focusing on ancient and medieval sources, the lines become even muddier.  Often there are no direct primary sources, but the closest source is the primary source.  Ancient Romans didn’t have a lot of primary sources about the Roman republic, so when historians write about the Roman republic, they use a lot of archaeological sources, and other ancient sources such as Livy who lived after the events.  Julius Caesar’s books are frequently used sources, but he was an observer of the cultures he wrote about.  Even in the colonial era, a lot of the primary sources for indigenous peoples are that of the invading Europeans.

 

There are a few things that are always secondary sources though.  Journal articles, textbooks, reference books, and most monograph books.  As for primary sources, well, there’s nothing that is always a primary source.  A journal can recount rumor or an anecdote from a friend, an interview could contain third hand information.

 Secondary Sources

When evaluating a primary vs secondary source, you have to be critical and careful.  Each source requires an independent and thorough review, especially when studying historical time periods.  The further back a time period, the muddier the primary/secondary line becomes.

 

Here are some easy evaluation tools.  Regarding each source, ask yourself:

1) was this person involved in the event I’m researching?

2) was s/he a witness to that event?

3) does this account contain rumor or hearsay?

4) is this a legal document from the time period?

5) (if artifact) has this artifact been reliably dated to the time period?

 

For further information regarding primary and secondary sources see:

http://teachinghistory.org/best-practices/using-primary-sources/19080

http://www.princeton.edu/~refdesk/primary2.html

http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/writing/history/sources/secondary.html

 

For the downloadable, pdf version of this guide click here: Primary & Secondary Source Guide.

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Undergraduate Research Guide

Undergraduate Research Guide

 

I’ve been doing academic research for many a year.  Not longer than any of you have likely been alive, but I did start doing research projects in sixth or seventh grade, so it’s been about 11 years.  In that time, I’ve learned how to gauge a good, credible website versus a bad, not credible website.  Which by the way doesn’t mean the information is automatically right or wrong.  A lot of history (and anthropology) is about your interpretation, so information is always subjective.  Additionally, history professors can make mistakes just as easily as history enthusiasts with no training can.  So always keep a critical eye no matter what you’re reading.  

 

WEBSITES | .gov .edu .org

Evaluating websites before you cite them is important.  I trust the websites that I’ve cited above, but there are plenty of other sites.  Most sites that end in “.edu” or “.gov” are credible, because they’re produced by educational institutions or government organizations.  When I was first learning to research I was also told “.org” but the rules have changed.  Be careful with “.org” sites.  Some of them are by religious organizations, which means the facts will be reflective of their religious views.  Which is not to say that religious websites are bad, but they are subjective.

This is not to say that no “.com” websites are reliable.  But anyone can get a “.com” website, so they require further vetting.

A web search can result in lots of options, but you should always look for an author.  Then take that author’s name and google them.  You never know, MarxInHistory.com (not a real website, but one someone should totally make) could easily be run by Dr. John B. Doe, PhD in History.  But you won’t know unless you check.  I’m less critical of databases of texts, because they’re so easy to vet with other sources.

 

 

DATABASES

If you’re in university, you have access to your college’s library.  Most of them have subscriptions to various databases.  If you’re in high school, your library may still have some database access, or an agreement with a local college.  These are usually accessible through the library website.  Some are bigger than others, so it couldn’t hurt to ask a friend at a different, bigger school if their library has access to a database yours doesn’t.  A lot of city libraries also have access to a lot of databases.  I was spoiled during high school because I lived in New York and had an NYPL card.  The NYPL had a HUGE database.  It was easy to find just about anything I needed.  During college I used the DCPL database as well.  Most major cities have a lot of databases, and plenty of towns have some kind of database search.

 

LIBRARY RESEARCH

If you are struggling, I can’t recommend enough to go ask a research librarian for help.  They’re trained to do research, they can suggest new keywords, new databases, maybe they even know a book or two before researching.  Just go in and ask for help.  Especially at a university.

 

OPEN SOURCE ACADEMIA

I talked about this slant-wise in the Academia.edu section of my History Source Guide.  Lots of scholars, when legally possible, make their articles available for free.  Sometimes their doctoral dissertations too.  For my thesis I cited a doctoral dissertation I found on the internet.  Which sounds sketchy, but I researched the doctoral candidate.  (She’s a professor in Scotland now).  Google Scholar is a great source for this.  Sometimes you can find things like newsletters within departments that have been put online.  Sometimes, as a project, professors will have students create websites or blogs, and their citations can be very handy.  Sometimes professors blog, and cite sources within their blog posts.

 

Emailing A Professional

I have to preface this by saying I have never done it.  But, if you read an article, you can often email the person who wrote it.  Find an article through a database you really love?  Want to have a conversation with the professor?  It can’t hurt to email them. Their emails are often on the paper itself.  My classmate, lets call him B, actually emailed a PhD who had written a lot of books and articles in his topic, and that PhD responded!  The professor sent him an article, and gave him some ideas of where else to look.  So great things can happen from emailing a professional.

 

 

Scholarpedia | http://www.scholarpedia.org/

An alternative to Wikipedia, this is a peer-reviewed online encyclopedia written by professors.  They write comprehensive, easily accessible articles with citations.  They do focus on science and math, but if that’s your topic, you’re probably set with the articles here and their citations.

 

Google Scholar | scholar.google.com

When searching for academic articles without a university database, Google Scholar is your best friend.  While your results will sometimes be met with paywalls, you can also find some freely available sources here.

 

Directory of Open Access Journals | http://doaj.org/

Many scholars want their research to be available to all.  If only five people read your article, you’re not going to get much discussion out of it.  So some journals have made their contents freely available through the Directory of Open Access Journals.  You will have to search, but nothing is behind a paywall.

 

REFERENCE PAGES

Once you’ve found one source, you’ve got a foothold.  Check the reference page of that book or article.  They have to have referenced someone else.  Then check that article’s reference page.  Search the authors’ names.  Chances are if they’ve written one article about English piety under viking rule in Jorvik, they’ve written two.  Or they’ve written something related.  Use keywords from that book/article in your search.  Really, finding your first source is the biggest sigh of relief moment.

 

Thank you for making it all the way to the end of this long, everlasting guide.  Check back to my website (JeanniFloyd.wordpress.com) for an anthropology guide, a history guide, and more.

To download this guide as a PDF click here: Undergraduate Research Guide