Using Primary Sources on the Web

Students and researchers now have greater access to primary source materials for historical research than ever before. The traditional use of sources available in print and microfilm continues to be the foundation for research, but in some cases documents, letters, maps, photographs of ancient artifacts and other primary material are available online in different formats from free websites or subscription services on the internet. Users of primary sources have always needed to examine their sources critically, but now with the proliferation of electronic resources from a wide variety of web site producers, evaluation is more important than ever before. Users of web resources must now consider the authenticity of documents, what person or organization is the internet provider, and whether the electronic version serves their needs. This brief guide is designed to provide students and researchers with information to help them evaluate the internet sources and the quality of primary materials that can be found online.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

Finding Primary Sources on the Web

Consult major collections of primary sources
The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.
Browse a history subject directory
Subject directories are useful when you are interested in seeing a broad variety of sources on your topic. Some subject directories include annotations and evaluations of sites. Useful subject directories for history include:
Use a search engine
Search engines are useful when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. When searching, use specific terms rather than broad terms. For example search for the “emancipation proclamation” not just “slavery,” search for the “battle of chancellorsville” not “civil war.” Some popular search engines are:
Get recommendations from your teacher or librarian
Many libraries compile lists of recommended history sites. Some examples include:
Check published guides to history web sites
Check and see if your library has the following books:
  • The European History Highway: A Guide to Internet Resources. Dennis A. Trinkle and Scott A. Merriman, editors. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.
  • History and the Internet: A Guide. By Patrick D. Reagan. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History. By Kathleen W. Craver. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Finding photographs and other non-text sources
Going to a major collection of photographs is the best way to find a historic image. Also, use a search engine to try a topic search, such “Eiffel Tower” or “Chingis Khan” or “Van Gogh and wheat fields” to find photos, drawings or reproductions of paintings. Some major collections include:

Evaluating Primary Source Web Sites

Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.

In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institution often are more reliable than personal websites, but government sites may be subject to propaganda.

Who is responsible for the website? Hints from URLs
Many URLs (Uniform Resource Locator or web site address) include the name and type of organization sponsoring the webpage. 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.theaha. org
.com = commercial site http://www.historychannel. com
.museum = museum http://nc.history. museum
.net = personal or other site http://www.californiahistory. net
Who is responsible for the website? Check for an Author
Look for the name of the author or organization responsible for the page. Look for the following information:
  • Credentials — who is the author or organization and what sort of qualifications do they have?
  • Contact address — is an email or some other contact information given?
  • "About" link — is there an “about,” “background,” or “philosophy” link that provides author or organizational information?
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. Discovering the purpose can help determine the reliability of the site and the information it provides.
  Some pages explicitly state their purpose, others do not. To find information about the purpose:
  • Check for an “about” link — these links often provide some information about the purpose of the site.
  • Find the homepage for the site — sometimes page includes the “about” link or other clues on the purpose of the organization sponsoring the site.
  • Look for an agenda — are documents slanted in some way to persuade you? If the purpose of the website is to persuade, you should examine the material very closely before accepting it as fact.

 
Determining the origin of the document
In a website of primary sources it is important to determine where the author got the documents. The best sites clearly state the source 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 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.
  • 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 web sites 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 another not so reliable site and vice-versa.
What do others say about the web site?
Check to see if the web site is reviewed: Find out what other webpages link to the web site. How many links are there? What kinds of sites are they?
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:
  • Pages that are legible with clear explanations.
  • Obvious navigational aid 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.
What is the format of the documents?
An electronic version of a primary source can be either a scanned image of the original document (a facsimile) or an ASCII text or word processed version, created by re-keying the content of the document or by using optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the image of the document into text. Ideally, a primary source on the web should be made available in both forms when originals are difficult to read and to provide keyword searching of the text. Facsimiles reproduce the layout, illustrations and other non-verbal information contained in the original document, and they allow the researcher to check the accuracy of other editions or versions of the document. ASCII text versions can be searched, quoted from easily (by copying into word-processing software) and they provide a back-up for illegible portions of facsimiles.
Is there a fee for use?
Fee-based sites must be weighed against their value. It is possible that the same content, or similar content, is available through another electronic source free of charge. Public, school, and academic libraries may offer free access to fee based electronic collections of primary resources.

Citing Web Sites

It is important to provide complete information about your primary source whether found in a printed source or online. The basic elements to include in a citation for a published print source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the book if different from the document, name of editor or author of the book, place of publication, publisher, year, and page numbers. The basic elements to include in a citation for an online source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the web site, author or producer of the web site, url, date (if given) and date accessed. Various style formats such as Chicago, MLA and APA put these elements in different order using different conventions. See the following web sites for further information and examples.

Credits

Written in 2003 by the Instruction & Research Services Committee of the Reference and User Service Association History Section in the American Library Association. Committee members:
 
Nancy Godleski
David Lincove (chair)
Theresa Mudrock
Edward Oetting
Jennifer Schwartz
Joe Toth
Kendra Van Cleave
Celestina Wroth
 
Revised 15 October 2003
Updated 10 January 2008