Evaluating and Using Primary Sources


primary source -- first hand account -- like a diary or witness or experiment or government report-- generally not evaluative but more gathering of facts and impressions or observations

secondary source --analysis or synthesis -- uses primary sources and other secondary sources to form conclusions and present solutions or an understanding

tertiary sources -- summary of events ideas, not new or groundbreaking, usually information from secondary sources -- examples encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks

Characteristics and Types of Primary Sources

o documents of action -- (military orders, speeches, constitutions, works of art, official records) -- tell us nothing about the results and cannot stand alone, needs other supporting evidence

o records of events (minutes of meetings, ships logs, census rolls, messages, journals or legislative bodies or groups, photographs, diaries, birth or death records, bank records, newspaper eyewitness accounts, TV news) -- can contain some misinformation, words can be misused, transcription may be improper

o records of memory (oral histories, interviews, memoirs, court testimony, eyewitness accounts) -- again memory is faulty

o statistics (census statistics, compiled data banks, survey results, records of data, company annual reports, 10K reports)

o tests/experiments (medical tests, intelligence tests, chemical experiments)

o original works (text of a novel)

Questions to ask about a source to determine its usefulness.

1. When was the document written? If there is no date, what elements within it can help to establish a date
2. Who wrote it? If there is no obvious author, are there hints in the document that indicate the author's class, occupation, sex, or age
3. What was the purpose of the document? (Official communication , unofficial communication, record keeping, propaganda, publicity)
4. For who was it written? Is there an implied audience or "hidden" audience as well as an openly intended audience?
5. Are there implicit assumptions? Did the original readers know or assume things not stated in the document?
6. Some implicit assumptions are clear. Might there be others? What hints point to this?
7. Is the source reliable? The usual criteria for evaluation he reliability (or authority) of primary sources are: (1) the closer the source is to the activity documented, the better it is as a record of the activity, and (2) the less selectivity involved in documenting the event, the more reliable is that documentation.