EVALUATING HISTORICAL SOURCES

Historians most often use written sources, but audio and visual materials as well as artifacts have become important objects that supply information to modern historians. Numerical data are explained in written form or used in support of a written statement. Historians must be aware of the climate of opinion or shared set of values, assumptions, ideas, and emotions that influence the way their sources are constructed and the way they perceive those sources. In addition, an individual's own frame of reference-- the product of one's own individual experiences lived--must be acknowledged by the perceptive historian in order to determine the reliability and credibility of a source in relation to others. Good historical writing includes:Historical sources are typically divided into two categories: primary and secondary sources. Depending on the historian's intent, some sources change their designation. Determining what sort of sources to use, and the level of credibility and reliability of those sources, is an important step in critical thinking for the historian.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are produced usually by a participant or observer at the time an event or development took place (or even at a later date). Primary sources include manuscripts such as letters, diaries, journals, memos. Newspapers, memoirs, and autobiographies also might function as primary sources. Nonwritten primary sources might be taped interviews, films and videotapes, photographs, furniture, cards, tools, weapons, houses and other artifacts.

 

How to Read a Primary Source

 

To read primary sources effectively requires you to use your historical imagination along with your research skills. You must be willing and able to ask questions, imagine possible answers, find factual background data, and craft an analytical response. To evaluate primary sources, explore the following parts of the text or artifact by following these steps:

 

1.       Author and Audience:

         Who wrote the text (or created the artifact) and what is the author/creator's place in society? If the person is not well known, try to get clues from the text/artifact itself.

         Why do you think the author wrote it? How "neutral" is the text; how much does the author have a stake in you reading it, i.e., does the author have an "ax to grind" which might render the text unreliable? What evidence (in the text or artifact) tells you this? People generally do not go to the trouble to record their thoughts unless they have a purpose or design; and the credible author acknowledges and expresses those values or biases so that they may be accounted for in the text.

         What is the intended audience of the text or artifact? How does the text reveal the targetted audience?

2.       Logic:

         What is the author's thesis? How does the creator construct the artifact? What is the strategy for accomplishing a particular goal? Do you think the strategy is effective for the intended audience? Cite specific examples.

         What arguments or concerns does the author imply that are not clearly stated? Explain what you think this position may be and why you think it.

3.       Frame of Reference:

         How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of our age? Give specific examples of differences between your frame of reference and that of the author or creator -- either as an individual or as a member of a cultural group.

         What assumptions do we as readers bring to bear on this text? See if you can find portions of the text which we might find objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable.

4.       Evaluating Truth Content:

         How might this text support one of the arguments found in a historical secondary source? Choose a paragraph anywhere in a secondary source you've read, state where this text might be an appropriate footnote (give a full citation), and explain why.

         Offer one example of a historical "fact" (something that is indisputable or generally acknowledged as true) that we can learn from this text (this need not be the author's exact words).

5.       Relation to Other Sources:

         Compare and contrast the source with another primary source from the same time period. What major similarities? What major differences appear in them?

         Which do you find more reliable and credible? Reliability refers to the consistency of the author's account of the truth. A reliable text displays a pattern of verifiable truth-telling that tends to make the reader trust that the rest of the text is true also. Your task as a historian is to make and justify decisions about the relative veracity of historical texts and portions of them.

 

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are produced when a historian uses primary sources to write about a topic or to support a thesis. Monographs, professionally researched and clearly written, about events and developments in the past might also use other secondary sources. Arranged artifacts might also be considered secondary sources, e.g., a specially designed wall of nineteenth century portraiture. Most books in the history section of a library and the articles in history journals are secondary sources. However, a secondary source, such as George Bancroft's nineteenth century history of the United States, might be a primary source for someone who is writing an article on "Techniques of Writing History in the Nineteenth Century."

 

How to Read a Secondary Source

 

Reading secondary historical sources is a skill which may be acquired and must be practiced. The key is to think about the material being presented and to connect it to other material you have covered. To evaluate secondary sources, explore the following parts of the text or artifact by following these steps:

 

1.       Structure: First read and think about the title -- what does it promise for the book or article? Then, if you have a book in hand, look at the table of contents: this is the "menu" that reveals the structure of the work. You can use this as your outline for your notes or create your own brief outline.

2.       Thesis: Always read a secondary source from the outside in: read a book's foreword and introduction (or the article's first paragraph or two); then read the conclusion or epilogue. Ask yourself what the author's thesis might be and check it against your outline to see how the argument has been structured.

3.       Argument: Continue to read the source from the outside in. For a book, quickly read the first and last paragraph of each chapter to get a good idea of the themes and arguments. Then skim through the chapters, taking cues as to which paragraphs are most important from their topic sentences. It is up to you to judge which passages are more important based on what you know so far about the book's themes and arguments. Highlight passages that seem to be especially relevant by placing them on notecards or making margin notes. Your notations should include your reactions to those passages: is it a good piece of evidence for the author's argument or is a particular statement valid or credible? The idea here is to evaluate the logic of the argument and the base of resources on which the author relies.

4.       Resources: Read the footnotes! They are the nuts and bolts of history writing. When you come across a particularly interesting or controversial passage, watch to see what is cited. What primary sources has the historian used? Have they been used effectively? Are her sources credible or reliable? How does the use of the sources influence the kinds of arguments made? What other sources might have been used?

5.       Motives: Why did the author write the book? Find out who the author is/was and the context in which she or he wrote the book. What political and cultural institutions or events might have had an impact on the author's reason for writing this source? What ongoing historiographical discussion (e.g., a hot topic at a history conference, in a journal or listserv) do you think this source is contributing to?

 

Understanding the ways historians construct their arguments is essential to writing good history papers. Secondary sources, including your own research paper, are constructed for various reasons, including the following:

 

         No one has begun to analyze a particular issue, and so the author is developing a first interpretation of it.

         Gaps or deficiences in the scholarship in a particular topic created a need for a monograph to help close them.

         A popular or commonplace interpretation of an issue begs for a more accurate interpretation with which to debunk it.

         Existing scholarship of a topic is too simplistic, and an author might add complexity by examining and evaluating particular details.

         Debate on a particular topic might foster yet another perspective which will demonstrate that one side is more persuasive than another.

         Debate on a topic must be recast because the participants are asking the wrong questions or viewing the issue in an inappropriate way.

         A case study of a general historical argument or principle about a topic could provide reinforcements for that principle, require modifications of it, or negate it entirely.

         A test case of a broad interpretation of a large or complex topic would entail a study of one portion of that larger argument. The results of that test case may reinforce the broad interpretation, require its modification, or negate it entirely.


Back to Handouts Page

Home | Links | Syllabus | Calendar


University of Kentucky
1601 Patterson Office Tower
Lexington, KY  40506-0027
Phone: 606-257-9739
Fax: 606-257-7034
Email: dolph@pop.uky.edu
http://www.uky.edu/~dolph/HIS316/handouts/sources.html