Evaluating & Selecting Secondary Sources

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the differences between primary and secondary sources and the important questions to ask yourself when evaluating a secondary source.

Trustworthy Sources of Information

Many people take things like history books at face value. After all, you can't mess with the facts, right? Wrong! History books, just like other secondary sources (such as newspaper stories or journal articles) are still interpretations of facts. Knowing this, it's important to gain the skills necessary to be able to decipher when secondary sources are giving you accurate information or when they are bending that information to serve their own agenda.

In this lesson we'll discuss some of the things to keep in mind when reading secondary sources and the questions to ask in order to evaluate secondary sources properly. You will soon be an enlightened information consumer.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

First off, let's establish what a secondary source is. A primary source is any first-hand account taken from or given by someone who directly experienced the event. This can be journals, eyewitness accounts, and video testimony, among others. Think of a criminal trial. A witness who saw the shooting happen would be a primary source.

Secondary sources are resources that take that a primary source or multiple sources and give an account or interpretation of the event or facts the primary sources describe. This includes newspapers, television news segments, history books, or any other writing that uses the source material to illustrate a larger story. Think again of a criminal trial. A reporter who uses the shooting as a piece in a story about crime in the city has created an article that is a secondary source.

Secondary sources are important. They are written by studious and intelligent people who help give meaning and importance to strings of events which would otherwise seem random and singular. However, it's important to understand that these sources are telling their own story.

Selecting Secondary Sources

Now that you know what secondary sources are, it's important that you pick the correct ones. Don't simply go down to the news stand and pick the first three magazines you see -- you'll probably end up with tabloids that are more rumor than fact!

Good secondary sources are generally reputable newspapers. Think the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or your nearest big city's most popular broadsheet. These venerable institutions can be depended on to employ reputable journalists who, even if they do possess their own slant, can generally be relied upon to give you good facts.

Additionally, most books, journal articles, and conference booklets that have been peer-edited are excellent secondary sources. These are most often written by scholars and academics who have devoted their lives to the study of a certain topic. Not only have they likely done the primary source research already, but they also have knowledge of other secondary sources and scholarship which you may never find on your own!

Finally, when all else fails, ask your local librarian. They often possess a wealth of knowledge and can aid you in your search of reputable secondary sources.

Evaluation and Selection

Most secondary sources are attempting to make a point of some kind, whether it's about crime in a city or the major trend of an entire historical period. You need to ask yourself some key questions as you absorb the information contained in them. Below are some examples of these important questions to ask when reading a secondary source.

What is the author's main argument?

It's of paramount importance when evaluating a secondary source to decipher the author's main argument. What's their point? What is the whole reason for writing the piece? What are they trying to tell us about their subject matter and what appears to be their own viewpoint? It gives you insight into the type of bias the author might have and also tells you what kind of primary sources the author may have been looking for in the first place.

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