Evaluating Primary Sources

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Once you have found what looks like an interesting website with a plethora of primary sources, what is your next step? Well, many historians will look critically at where the information comes from. They want to be confident that the sources they have found e.g. scanned images, are reliable and represent an accurate depiction of the original document. Determining the origin or source of an item is referred to as determining the “provenance.” The Society of American Archivists defines provenance as the “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”1

As a student who may be required to evaluate a full-text primary source online, how might you go about determining the quality and reliability of a primary source website? Using the criteria presented below can help you assess the value of the sources you have found.

Authority or Who is Responsible for the Website? 

When applying this criteria to primary sources accessed on the Web, it is important to keep in mind you are evaluating the person or organization responsible for creating the website rather than the creator of the original primary source.

Question Authority: Check for Responsibility

Look for the name of the individual or organization responsible for the page. Look for the following information:

  • "About" link — is there an “about,” “background,” or “FAQ” link that names the individual or organization responsible for this information? To find an "about" link or information about the author/organization you may need to find the homepage for the entire site. This may require backtracking a url, i.e. deleting the end of the URL section by section until you find a main page for the site.

  • If no background information about the author is given, try using Google to search the author's name. You can also check with your library to see if the author has written other books or articles on this topic. If there is no personal author, attempt to find information about an organization by Googling the organization name or by checking with your library.
    Example:  
    The Body of Liberties of the Massachusets Collonie in New England, is a transcribed document dated 1641. There is a link to the University of Chicago at the bottom of the page. An additional link to "Home" is provided on the side. This link home leads to the Founders' Constitution site. A link on this homepage, About Founders provides information on the University of Chicago Press publication from which the documents are taken and gives information about the editors of the original printed volumes. 

  • Credentials — who is the individual or the organization, and what qualifications do they have?

  • Contact address — is there some form of contact information given (e.g. email, etc.)?

Question Authority: Hints from the URL

Websites produced by educational or governmental institutions with collections of primary sources are generally of higher quality than personal websites. Remember though that educational institutions often provide web space for their faculty, staff and students that are not vetted by the institution and government-sponsored sites may engage in propaganda. Personal sites may be recognized by checking the URL (Uniform Resource Locator or website address) for the use of a tilde (~) followed by a personal name, or the words "users," "members," "students," or "faculty." Whenever you come across a personal website, investigate the author's credentials.

Many URLs include the name and type of organization sponsoring the web page. The 3-letter domain codes and 2-letter country codes provide hints on the type of organization. Common domain codes are:


Domain

Sample Address

.edu = educational institution

http://docsouth.unc. edu

.gov = US government site

http://memory.loc. gov

.org = organization or association

http://www.historians. org

.com = commercial site

http://www.historynet. com

.net = personal or other site

http://www.besthistorysites. net

 

Who is the Intended Audience for the Website? 

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The audience reading level can be inferred by the use of more specialized language. Was the website designed for a general audience looking for basic encyclopedic information? Or does the website look more like an elementary school report? A scholar, writing for an expert audience, may include citations and will use language that is frequently more academic.

Is there a clear purpose or reason for this site? Websites can be created for a variety of purposes: to disseminate information, provide access to collections, support teaching, sell products, persuade, etc. Discerning the purpose can help you determine the quality of the information the site provides.

Some pages explicitly state their purpose, others do not. To find information about the purpose:

  • Check for an “about” or “FAQ” link — these links often provide information about the purpose of the site.

    Example:
    THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet - About THOMAS states "THOMAS was launched in January of 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress. The leadership of the 104th Congress directed the Library of Congress to make federal legislative information freely available to the public." Since that time THOMAS has expanded the scope of its offerings..."

  • Find the homepage for the site — sometimes the page includes an “about” link or other clues on the purpose of the organization sponsoring the site.

  • Look for an agenda — are documents presented to persuade you to a certain point of view? If the purpose of the website is to persuade, you should examine the material very closely before accepting it as genuine.

Assessing Website Accuracy and Content 

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Determining the Origin of the Document

In a website of primary sources it is important to determine where the individual or organization acquired the documents. The best sites clearly state the provenance of the original material. Different factors need to be considered based on the format of the document and type of site:

  • Scanned image of a document: The image of scanned documents usually illustrates what the original documents look like. The origin of the documents at a website may be determined by the creator of the website. For example, the Library of Congress website generally supplies documents from its own manuscript collections, but for other organizations providing in-house documents is not always possible. Sometimes, websites will present texts from other document collections, or may provide links to documents at other websites. Also keep in mind that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is not 100% accurate. Obsolete print characters, faint script, or damaged paper can cause difficulty for programs used to interpret them.

  • Transcribed document: Transcribed documents do not illustrate the original image of the document but only provide the content in plain text format. It is important to discover the original source of transcribed documents to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. The source, which may be the original documents or published editions, should be cited.

  • Links to external documents: Metasites that link to external documents and websites that use frames require you to track down the original website for the documents for evaluation purposes. A reliable website may link to a document in an external, less reliable site and vice-versa.

    Example:
    From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond: This website, dedicated to the presidents of the United States and complete with the inaugural addresses, was compiled by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. An original version of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address of April 30, 1789, can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration website. Document sites can be second and third generations removed, like a manuscript that has been copied and re-copied several times over, increasing the possibility that errors may occur.

Evaluating Content and Arrangement

Is the content clearly explained, organized and accessible?

Good web design not only makes an electronic resource easier to use, it is also one indication that the content has been provided, and is being maintained, by a trustworthy source. Although standards of what constitutes “good web design” vary widely, clarity, simplicity and easily-understandable navigational cues are some of the obvious signs. Some considerations are: 

  • Searchable document text.
  • Pages that are legible with clear explanations.
  • Obvious navigational aids that provide access to documents and obvious links on every webpage to the homepage.
  • Individual URLs for each document for ease of linking and citation information.
  • Clear instructions about special software requirements.
  • Subject listing of historical concepts since language changes across time and space.
 
 
1 Pearce-Moses, Richard. “Provenance.” A Glossary of Archival & Records Terminology. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005. Accessed September 25, 2015. http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/p/provenance.