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HIST 301: The Historian's Craft

Use this guide to start locating primary and secondary source literature for your research papers.

Evaluating Primary Sources

Questions to ask yourself:

1. The record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the authors/participants. Any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective. When analyzing a primary source, ask yourself these questions:

  • When was it written?
  • Can you tell the intended audience?
  • How reliable is the evidence? Does the evidence contradict itself and does it disagree with evidence from other sources?
  • Who was the author? Why did she/he write it? Was it intended to be objective or to persuade readers to a point of view? Can you detect a bias? 

Besides what you can find out about the author, look at the source for internal contradictions and inconsistencies, the use of adjectives and other words that could point to the author’s hidden biases and unspoken assumptions. Do certain words or concepts keep cropping up?

2. It works both ways. You bring to the sources your own biases, created by your own personal situations and the social environments in which you live.

Evaluating Secondary Sources

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is the audience for this source, and how does the audience shape it? 
  • What the purpose of this source?
  • What is the perspective of this source and the author who wrote it? 
  • How does this source use its sources?
  • How/does it speak to your research question?