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 (as opposed to through the Library’s resources). Only after determining the degree to which a primary source surrogate replicates the original version can one begin to interpret it.
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.
Version. A credible primary source surrogate includes information about the version of the item being replicated.
Replication. A credible primary source surrogate is reproduced in accordance with professionally recognized standards.
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:
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.