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Primary Sources: Across Disciplines

Montgomery Library's Guide to Primary Sources

Verifying Sources

An essential step in the research process is to evaluate the veracity of primary (print or electronic) sources being used. For scholarship to be trustworthy, the researcher must critically analyze his or her information gleaned from primary material. A successful researcher pays attention to detail, applies common-sense reasoning, possesses a "feel" for history or chronology, is intuitively aware of human behavior, and aware of the ever-expanding supply of information.

Basic evaluation criteria for primary sources include the following questions, which were adapted from The Information-Literate Historian, by Jenny L. Presnell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); The Modern Researcher, Rev. Ed., by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970); After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982):

  • Who created the source (letter, newspaper article, diary, photograph, government document, etc.)? Find out as much information from secondary literature about the person or organization that produced the item.
  • Why was the document or artifact created?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • When was the document or artifact created?
  • What was the contemporary circumstances that shaped its final form?
  • What was the function of the artifact or item within the cultural, political, and social context of the time period?
  • Is a significant idea, name, or item missing? Was the omission intentional? Why? Are the facts incomplete or complete? Would the creator of the item be expected to have access to more information than is apparent? Did the creator(s) actually have access to the information?
  • What is the perspective of the creator(s)? Did this affect the item's contents?
  • Is the document or object reflective of the time in which it was created? Are there other contemporary sources that either contradict or support the evidence? What voices are missing from the item? Is a particular gender, racial, ethnic, regional, religious, economic, or political perspective reflected?
  • Is the document or object believable? When compared to other validated items from the time period, is it plausible that the source was created during the time it is purported to have been created?