Primary sources: Evaluating

Undergraduate research using primary sources does not require the ability to tell the difference between an authentic document and a forgery. Instead--since most of the available materials come in the form of reproductions or transcriptions--it requires the ability to evaluate how well the version being used represents its original source. This is particularly true for sources found on the World Wide Web. Only after determining the degree to which a primary source surrogate replicates the original version can one begin to interpret it.

How trustworthy is the reproduction?

Credible primary source surrogates include information about the source and version of the item being reproduced. They are also replicated in a manner that helps ensure their accuracy. Consider the following points when evaluating the quality of a reproduction or transcription of a primary source.

Source. A credible primary source surrogate provides a citation for the source from which it is reproduced.

  • For written materials, look for information in a collection's introductory sections or a note immediately preceding or following a document. In many cases, this will not refer you to the original source, but to an authoritative republication with related documents (e.g., The Writings of Abraham Lincoln).
  • For images, source references not found in a caption can often be located in a "credits" section at the end of a book or in the accompanying catalog record of an electronic resource.
  • For moving pictures, information related to their original production is usually incorporated into the film itself.

Version. A credible primary source surrogate includes information about the version of the item being replicated.

  • Establishing the date for a source is a principal way to differentiate between multiple versions of the same item. Where a date is not part of a primary source, look for an accompanying note with information about when the item was created or its relationship to other versions.

    For example, a researcher using the Library of Congress' American Memory site may choose from three versions of the Emancipation Proclamation created over a six month period. Without knowing the date of each version (or, at the very least, the sequence in which they were created), the interpretive value of each document would be diminished.
  • Look for information about the translation for a primary source created in another language.
  • Look for notes on whether a version is a revision or update of the original.

Replication. A credible primary source surrogate is reproduced in accordance with professionally recognized standards.

  • For print sources, look for an editor's note about how unpublished materials have been transcribed.
  • For online sources, look for an explanation of how the materials have been digitized. Archives, special collections, libraries, and museums are usually very exacting in how they digitally reproduce materials from their collections. The Library of Congress, for example, provides extensive technical information about the standards followed in digitizing its American Memory collection.
  • For feature films, note any major discrepancies between the running time listed in an authoritative reference source like the American Film Institute Catalog and the running time listed on a video's accompanying packaging or catalog record. Some videos are produced from incomplete prints of the original film.

How does the source under study differ from the original?

It is always important to consider how a primary source surrogate differs from the original. In some cases, this may have a significant effect on how an item can be interpreted. Primary sources exist in too many different forms to present anything but a suggestive list of issues to consider when evaluating how well a surrogate represents an original source. Below are a few examples:

  • Transcripts of primary sources like speeches, news programs, or manuscripts do not necessarily capture key elements of their originals. The written word cannot convey the intonation and gestures of a delivered speech or the interplay between a speaker and an audience. Television news reports include visual images that sometimes leave a more indelible impression than the words that accompany them. Manuscripts may have erasures, deletions, and added notes that provide glimpses into the thought processes of their creators.
  • Full text online versions of newspapers and magazines often have more limited content than their print counterparts. Photographs, illustrations, advertisements, and even many articles that appear in the print version are not available online. Unless the online version is a digital reproduction showing a newspaper's or magazine's original layout, it is also difficult for a researcher to judge how much prominence was given to a particular story, locate related articles, or develop an awareness of other stories which may have competed for a reader's attention.
  • Still image reproductions differ from their originals in numerous ways. A picture from a book is many times smaller and lacks the texture of an original painting or photograph. This loss of detail is even more pronounced for digitized reproductions, which have very low resolution. Colors cannot be accurately reproduced in a digitized format and are very expensive to reproduce in print form.
  • Sound recordings can vary significantly depending upon the original format and equipment used to play them. A song recorded on a vinyl record, transmitted over AM radio, and received by a transistor radio sounds quite different from a digitally re-mastered version on a compact disc played using a modern stereo system. In the case of radio (and television) broadcasts, it is important to also remember that an original program was almost always presented in short segments interspersed with advertisements.
  • Videos differ from their feature film counterparts in many obvious ways that still bear mentioning. The large discrepancy in the size of a projected film image and a video reproduction is the most obvious difference. Most videos crop the films they reproduce to fit the dimensions of a television screen. Some black and white films have been colorized. In addition, un-restored color films have often faded unevenly due to the instability of the original film.
  • Updates and revised editions may differ from the original in important ways. Special edition videos of major motion pictures often include scenes not included as part of the original feature's release. For a paper focusing on the contributions of the film's director or actors, this may not be an issue. If, however, the paper includes an analysis of the film's impact on moviegoers, a different version would be required.

Interpreting primary sources

Once the trustworthiness and limitations of your sources have been established, you are ready to begin interpreting them. Learning how to do this is beyond the scope of this guide. For a helpful introduction, consult the section on How to Read a Primary Source in Patrick Rael's, Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students.

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