Evaluating Sources for History Written Assignments

See also the Short Form for Source Evaluations

Introduction | Further Sources | External Evaluation | Internal Evaluation | Footer


In a world overflowing with more and more data, you need to become an intelligent consumer and evaluator of information. For the past few centuries, historians have relied on the printed word.  Libraries collected many useful books and journals, organized according to various systems, such as Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress.  Historians also thought of sources according to how they fit in the research process.   For more on that, see "Using Sources in Writing History." 

In recent years, the internet or world wide web have added new dimensions to researching history.  The best libraries have been situated in major metropolitan areas or at significant universities which are not always easily reached.  In contrast, online information from around the globe is only a few computer clicks distant.  Most sources found in libraries have been carefully selected, validated, and organized by trained, professional editors, librarians and professors.   The internet, however, is idiosyncratic, unsupervised, and aggregated by anyone with a computer and a connection. 

Out of this new technology arises two problems for you, the researcher.

One problem is the difficulty of finding useful information. The huge numbers of sites found by convenient search engines may be inadequate for your research: either they contain material completely unrelated to your topic or offer very little data that can be utilized in a research paper. You can often easily judge a site’s worth by the type or quantity of information offered. Or you may have to skim a number of these sites until you begin to find useful information.

The more important problem is how you deal with what may appear to be plentiful factual sources. Caveat Lector!  Do not believe everything you read, especially on the internet! Considering the great variety in the kind and quality of information to be found there, evaluation of sources is necessary to find any truth.  Once you find a site that appears promising, you should apply your critical thinking skills.  You need to separate the trash from the treasures.

 A good procedure is that used by historians as part of the historical method.  The questions and comments below should help you better determine the reliability of the data flowing into your computer. You should also apply similar questions to your printed sources.  Do not explicitly answer each subquestion in your analysis.  Try to compose a fluid, comprehensive evaluation.  

Introduction | External Evaluation | Internal Evaluation | Footer

Short Form for Source Evaluations

A. Source Citation: Where can one find the information?

Your information is not nearly as useful if someone else cannot find and use it themselves. So you must indicate where you found your sources, whether from a printed or electronic source. Even if many electronic sources of information may not last, or even if everyone does not have access, you must give a detailed description of where you got each source.

For Turabian/Chicago Manual of Style citations see citation.html, or Corgan Library Study Guide #11.

B. EXTERNAL EVALUATION: Is the source genuine? Is it what it says it is?

Your source may be published in order to deceive, misinform, or satirize. So you first need to find out about the circumstances of its creation and publication. Is it really a informant/witness to the events?

Range: authentic to spurious.

1. Origins: What is the source's starting point, current location, purpose, and availability?  Describe in detail why the site and this particular page or document exists.  A publisher is a person or organization that provides the resources and backing for the site to exist.  Someone had a reason for putting this information on the web.  

1.1. What is the type of location?

For books or journals, who is the publisher?  A major commercial press (Penguin, Random House), a university (Harvard, Penn State), a smaller press, self-published?

For the world wide web, examine the URL for clues:

These designations are obvious and general knowledge, so they are not worth commenting on.  Be sure to go beyond any simple designation, to examine all aspects of the website: What kind of school (elementary, high school, university), or what branch of government might affect its quality or objectivity?  If the website is on a server for general or commercial sources (.net or .com), or even an educational institution, the author of the page might be considered the publisher also.  A general site might just be providing space, at little or no cost to whoever is writing the information.  

Is there an e-mail link or address so you can verify or question any information? If so, use it!  

1.2. Identification: Who is the responsible for the information?

For books and journals is there an organization, academic society, editor in charge?

For the internet, is there any information about the provider from personal home pages or other directories?  
If there is no obvious link to a homepage or main page, move up the hierarchy by cuting off the ends of the URL.  For example, if you found the information from a link through a search engine like <www.special.net/ortho/goneril/news.html>, cut it down to  <www.special.net/ortho/goneril>, or further to  <www.special.net/ortho/> or even to <www.special.net/>.  Pages with those URLs might provide more information on who is responsible for the site.  

Would contacting the originator help verify or substantiate the information?  Is so, do so!  Look for >>readme<<, >>homepage<<, more about<<, and/or >>about this…<< files. Is contact information provided?  If so, great.  If not, check out homepages of authors or organizations (if there is no direct link, try different, shorter versions of the URL), or use a search engine to find out more information.  

Does the information have official approval of any organization, and if so what does that organization stand for or do? Who pays for it (private foundation, taxpayers, tuition, voluntary donations, advertising)?

1.3. Authority: is the responsible party a person or an institution with a vested interest?
Why has the builder of the site taken the trouble to put the information up? Public information? Political purpose? Humor? Personal agenda? Commercial profit?
(Note the differences between a "free" university or government site, paid for commercial site, etc.). (Or, a political party or a government will usually express its own particular point of view, which may be different from another party or a dissident group).

Is the provider’s occupational and/or educational background (student or professor), connection to educational or commercial organization (staff, student, faculty), nationality, political affiliation, age, gender, or class status relevant? Has the provider edited or checked the information? Does the site present more than one point of view, or at least links to sites with other points of view?  If your info is posted by a news agency like CNN or Time, does it nonetheless provide a certain point of view?  Don't be satisfied with merely identifying the organization--try to explain what it stands for.  

1.4. How accessible is the information?

For books and journals, were they available in a bookstore, a local library, inter-library loan, or online?  Does the book have citations, bibliography, or index?  Other maps, graphs, illustrations, or appendices?

For the internet, how easy was the site to locate? What search engines (and keywords) or links from other sites did you use to find this one? What links are provided to other similar sites?

Format: is the site user-friendly, visually interesting, easily negotiable, clearly organized, labeled or easy to navigate, interactive, indexed or searchable? Are there grammar and spelling errors (which may also be indicative of quality control). Is it completed or "under construction?" Is the site current or outdated?
Is there a bibliography? Any references to scholarly or professional journals or books for further information? Links to sites with similar or different interpretations? Are there visual aids like pictures, charts or maps?  Are there any special features like audio or video downloads for which you need special software?

Can the information be readily accessed? For example, is it in pdf, doc, html, or asp format? Is it clearly copyrighted or under terms or conditions of use?


2. Authorship: Who is the producer of the specific information? Describe who the author is and how he/she/they came to produce this information.

2.1. Attribution: What is the name and background of the author? Is it the same person who publishes the site? If so, then you do not need to add much information.  If not, apply the questions as above, 1.2 and 1.3.

2.2. Competence: What is the author’s expertise?

How much should you rely on what the author has to say? Depending on the author’s competence, reliability, bias, prejudice, underlying assumptions, education level, distance between event and record, the source’s accuracy may range from possible to plausible to probable to certain. Does the description reveal any superficiality or depth, errors, or indications of being an eyewitness? What are the author’s connections to the source?

2.3. Tradition: from original first recording to current document, how did it get from original recording to present? What is the information’s origin? How and where was it made? For example did it first appear as a newspaper story, or does it supplement a television production?

What was the author’s opportunity for creating this source? Is it their own eyewitness information or indirect? Is the information original or borrowed? Is it consistent with his/her known character?

How has it been stored and transmitted? Is it copyrighted or in public domain? Does it note if another individual or agency encoded the data? Are there any interpolations, emendations, insertions by others?

Introduction | Further Sources | External Evaluation | Footer

Short Form for Source Evaluations

C. INTERNAL EVALUATION: What does the source say? How is it significant for your research?

Now that you have a framework, you have to carry out a content analysis of your source. Your main task is not only to learn from what your source has to say, but also to be aware of its intent and point of view. Does it constructively add to your understanding?

Range: valuable to useless.

3. Objectivity: What is the source’s ostensible or intended purpose? Does the author’s point of view the source reveal any bias or prejudice?  Describe any indications of bias, favoritism or a limited perspective.

Note that most people have some bias -- an inclination to favor a certain point of view. Many American conservatives also accuse our media of having a liberal bias.  Similarly, many other nations do not agree with American policies or views of what is in their national interest, or even accept as positive such American virtues as democracy or capitalism.  Bias, or even prejudice -- an automatic rejection of other points of view -- does not necessarily invalidate your source. Just be sure to take in, and understand, the other point of view.

3.1. What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the audience popular, scholarly, political? Specialists or novices, professionals or amateurs, teachers or students, experts or general public? Is any methodology, school of thought, or theoretical background explained?

3.2. What is the tone?

Does it include any language or arguments that are clearly biased or prejudicial? Does it, present more than one point of view? Does the author acknowledge controversial positions or an opposing side? You should interpret for style, rhetoric, word-choice, allegory, satire (literal vs. real meaning). Is it written with anger, apology, justification, advocacy, argumentation, partisanship? Is it informative, explanatory, propagandistic, polemical, ideological? Analyze the source for connotation vs. denotation, consistency vs. self-contradictions, fact vs. opinion.  
If it is covering a conflict, does it take the side or perspective of one party more than the other?  
Do words like "atrocity," "cruelty," "slaughter" indicate bias toward one side, or general humanitarian concerns?


4. Accuracy: How accurate is the author? Describe in detail any errors or misleading information due to bias.

4.1. What are the author’s connections to the source? Is the source tertiary, secondary, or primary? (For more information on these distinctions, see http://departments.kings.edu/history/sources.html). Is the information drawn from government, commercial or private sources? Is the information based on myth, opinion or fact? Are there any obvious errors? Does it contradict other information you might have already learned? 

4.2. What kind of sources does the author use?  How recent is the information, what is its currency? When was it first created, put in electronic format and/or revised/updated? (Check header, bottom of web page, etc.) Is it recent, old, recycled? Still useful or superseded by newer information?


5. Content: What is the source’s content and coverage? Give specific examples of new information the source provides for your topic.

What information does it actually provide for you? What can you learn from it? What actions and facts does it reveal? Is it in-depth or superficial, comprehensively broad or tightly focused? You have really been after this all along. This answer could be your longest.


6. Value: What data, including inferences and implications can you draw? Using specific examples, explain how this changes your interpretation or structure of your evidence so far.

How useful is the information for your particular topic compared to other information? Does the work add to information you already have, correct or contradict it? Comparing it to other information on the site, does the information seem to be well-researched?

How does it compare with what else is known or written by the author and/or with other reliable sources? What is its relation to other printed sources?

Printed SOURCES and further Information in libraries:

Benjamin, Jules R. A Student's Guide to History. New York: St. Martin's Press, [1975].

Barzun, Jacques and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. Belmont, CA : Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.

Bennett, James D. & Harrison, Lowell H. Writing History Papers. St. Louis, MO: Forum Press, 1979.

Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: a Guide to Historical Research and Writing. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2002.

Cantor, Norman F. and Richard I. Schneider. How to Study History. New York, Crowell, [1967].

Daniels, Robert V. Studying History: How and Why. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

Gustavson, Carl G. A Preface to History. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1955.

Norling, Bernard. Towards a Better Understanding of History. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960.

Reagan, Patrick D. History and the Internet : a Guide. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Sanderlin, David. Writing the History Paper: How to Select, Collect, Interpret, Organize, and Write Your Term Paper. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Education Series, Inc., 1975.

Shafer, R. J. A Guide to Historical Method. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1980.

Williams, Robert C. The Historian's Toolbox : a Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.

SOURCES and further information on the internet:

Alexander, Jan and Marsha Anne Tate. "Original Web Evaluation Materials." Widener University Library. 1999-2005. <http://www.widener.edu/about/campus_resources/wolfgram_library/evaluate/original.aspx> (Accessed 11 January 2016).

D. Leonard Corgan Library. Evaluating Sources, URL: <http://kings.libguides.com/evaluate>. Wilkes-Barre, PA: King’s College, 2016. (Accessed 11 January 2016).

Ormondroyd, Joan, Michael Engle, & Tony Cosgrave. "How to Critically Analyze Information Sources." 5 April 2011. Olin & Uris Libraries, URL: <http://olinuris.library.cornell.edu/ref/research/skill26.htm>. (Accessed 11 January 2016).

Schrock, Kathleen. "Critical Evaluation Information." 4 January 2013. Kathy Schrock's Guide to Everything, URL: <http://www.schrockguide.net/critical-evaluation.html> (Accessed 11 January 2016).

Introduction | Further Sources | External Evaluation | Internal Evaluation

Short Form for Source Evaluations


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