Skip to main content

WRI 198: PRINCETON ETHNOGRAPHICALLY: Evaluating Sources

Primary v Secondary Sources

The Standard Definition

In historical writing, a primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:

* ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
* CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
* RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources include:

* Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
* The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History
* A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
* Weavings and pottery - Native American history
* Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece

What is a secondary source?
A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of seconday sources include:

* PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias

Examples of secondary sources include:

* A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
* A history textbook
* A book about the effects of WWI

Search by keyword for Primary Sources in the Main Catalog
You can search the Main Catalog to find direct references to primary source material. Perform a keyword search for your topic and add one of the words below:
(these are several examples of words that would identify a source as primary)

* charters
* correspondence
* diaries
* early works
* interviews
* manuscripts
* oratory
* pamphlets
* personal narratives
* sources
* speeches
* letters
* documents

 

Another Possible Usage

PRIMARY SOURCE (more frequently PRIMARY TEXT) is sometimes used in a different sense in some types of classes. In a literature class, for example, the primary source might be a novel about which you are writing, and secondary sources those sources also writing about that novel (i.e., literary criticism). However, if you were writing about the literary criticism itself and making an argument about literary theory and the practice of literary criticism, some would use the term PRIMARY SOURCE to refer to the criticism about which you are writing, and secondary sources other sources also making theoretical arguments about the practice of literary criticism. In this second sense of primary source, whatever you are primarily writing ABOUT becomes the primary source, and secondary sources are those sources also writing about that source. Often this will be called the PRIMARY TEXT, but some people do use primary source with this meaning.

 

Tertiary Sources

Just so you can keep up with all the scholarly jargon about sources, a tertiary source is a source that builds upon secondary sources to provide information. The most common example is an encyclopedia. Consider a particular revolution as an historical event. All the documents from the time become primary sources. All the historians writing later produce secondary sources. Then someone reads those secondary sources and summarizes them in an encyclopedia article, which becomes a tertiary source. If someone then collected a bibliography of encyclopedia articles on the topic, that might be a quarternary source, but at that point the whole thing just becomes silly.

Evaluating Sources

Evaluating Websites

Evaluation of Web documents How to interpret the basics
1. Accuracy of Web Documents
  • Who wrote the page and can you contact him or her?
  • What is the purpose of the document and why was it produced?
  • Is this person qualified to write this document?
Accuracy
  • Make sure author provides e-mail or a contact address/phone number.
  • Know the distinction between author and Webmaster.
2. Authority of Web Documents
  • Who published the document and is it separate from the "Webmaster?"
  • Check the domain of the document, what institution publishes this document?
  • Does the publisher list his or her qualifications?
Authority
  • What credentials are listed for the authors)?
  • Where is the document published? Check URL domain.
3. Objectivity of Web Documents
  • What goals/objectives does this page meet?
  • How detailed is the information?
  • What opinions (if any) are expressed by the author?
Objectivity
  • Determine if page is a mask for advertising; if so information might be biased.
  • View any Web page as you would an infommercial on television. Ask yourself why was this written and for whom?
4. Currency of Web Documents
  • When was it produced?
  • When was it updated'
  • How up-to-date are the links (if any)?
Currency
  • How many dead links are on the page?
  • Are the links current or updated regularly?
  • Is the information on the page outdated?
5. Coverage of the Web Documents
  • Are the links (if any) evaluated and do they complement the documents' theme?
  • Is it all images or a balance of text and images?
  • Is the information presented cited correctly?
Coverage
  • If page requires special software to view the information, how much are you missing if you don't have the software?
  • Is it free or is there a fee, to obtain the information?
  • Is there an option for text only, or frames, or a suggested browser for better viewing?
Putting it all together
  • Accuracy. If your page lists the author and institution that published the page and provides a way of contacting him/her and . . .
  • Authority. If your page lists the author credentials and its domain is preferred (.edu, .gov, .org, or .net), and, . .
  • Objectivity. If your page provides accurate information with limited advertising and it is objective in presenting the information, and . . .
  • Currency. If your page is current and updated regularly (as stated on the page) and the links (if any) are also up-to-date, and . . .
  • Coverage. If you can view the information properly--not limited to fees, browser technology, or software requirement, then . . .

    You may have a Web page that could be of value to your research!

FROM: Kapoun, Jim. "Teaching undergrads WEB evaluation: A guide for library instruction." C&RL News (July/August 1998): 522-523.