Because archives collect only unique or rare materials, they can be a great place to find primary sources to help you with your research. The UCLA Institute on Primary Resources gives this succinct description of primary and secondary sources:
"Primary resources provide firsthand evidence of historical events. They are generally unpublished materials such as manuscripts, photographs, maps, artifacts, audio and video recordings, oral histories, postcards, and posters. In some instances, published materials can also be viewed as primary materials for the period in which they were written. In contrast, secondary materials, such as textbooks, synthesize and interpret primary materials."
Primary sources give you a more direct connection to a person, event, or historical period. However, just because a document is original does not mean that it is necessarily more reliable or credible than a secondary source. It's important to evaluate your sources as you conduct research. You can find out more about primary source research and resource evaluation on the rest of this page.
Evaluating a source involves understanding the nature of the document, including its credibility and any biases it might have. For example, if you were trying to do objective research on the Civil War, it would be important to know if a news article was written by a publication from the Union or the Confederacy. They would have seen things very differently, and your "facts" could be compromised! Here are some basic questions to ask yourself when evaluating a source.
Who is the author?
What do you know about their history and affiliations that might help you understand the context of their work? Biographies and enyclopedia entries can be helpful here, as can other supporting documents from a collection.
What are the author's credentials?
This is an important question when evaluating both print and online resources. Previous publications or other professional credentials may help you understand more about the authority of the writer and how knowledgable they are/were considered to be on their topic.
Why did the author write this?
It is helpful to know if your author was writing for a specific purpose. This will be particularly helpful in identifying any biases that may be present in the work. Remember the Civil War example from above - writing in support of a cause, or as the result of an event may change the way information is presented.
Who, if anyone, published this source?
When you work with archival material, much of it will be unpublished. However, if you work with published material it is helpful to know more about the publisher to help contextualize the people who would have read the work at the time, and how they might have thought about it.
Is this a scholarly source?
For published works - was the resource subject to peer-review or other editing? If not, evaluate the ability of the author to provide reliable and comprehensive information without the help of outside review.
Document a recent/personal event
- Diaries and Letters
Present facts or data
- Birth Certificate
Original creative works
- A novel or book of poetry
Discuss past events
- Historical non-fiction
- Encyclopedias and bibliographies
Criticize or analyze art
- Review of a play
The Western University Libraries created this great video with some quick tips on how to evaluate resources based on five principles - Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. (Hey, we didn't make up the acronym!)