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History Subject Resource Guide

Evaluating Evidence: A Conversation with Professor Joanne B. Freeman

Evaluating primary sources

Historians use primary sources as evidence to support their historical arguments. They are aware that primary sources often reflect the interests and concerns of their creator or author so must be critically examined and evaluated.  When using primary sources, see if you can determine:  

  • author or creator?
  • date of publication (how close to the actual event)?
  • intended audience?
  • purpose of the source (to present facts, or point of view)?
  • does it contain unspoken assumptions?
  • anything about the author that may influence the validity or reliability of the source?
  • any biases?
  • how this source compares with others from the same period (are there inconsistencies or contradictions)?
  • if the original source was commissioned or funded by anyone with a particular viewpoint?

You may not be able to answer all these questions, but hopefully you can find enough to help you decide how reliable the source is and how you will use it.

Evaluating secondary sources

Secondary sources allow us to learn how other historians have interpreted primary sources in order to understand an event.  It is equally important to evaluate the reliability and validity of secondary sources as much as the primary.  Points to consider:

  • The author (can you determine his/her academic credentials?)
  • Publication date (when was it written)?  Consider the political, cultural and social context in which the source was written.
  • Publisher (scholarly or academic press, or popular)?
  • Intended audience?
  • What sources does the author use as evidence (primary or secondary)? 
  • Do you know of any primary sources the author did not consider?
  • Does the author interpret the primary sources persuasively?
  • Does the author acknowledge other points of view?
  • Check the bibliography or notes to see if other important works are referenced.

As with primary sources, you may not be able to ascertain all of the above, but you should be able to determine enough about the source in order to determine its usefulness.

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