Most research papers in the arts and humanities require use of primary and secondary sources for critical analysis and support of ideas. But what is a primary source and what is a secondary source? Figuring this out can be complicated!
What is a Primary Source?
The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association offers a historical definition of a primary source, to wit:
"primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories." [RUSA, "Using Primary Sources on the Web," accessed January 2014 through http://www.ala.org/rusa/sections/history/
What is a Secondary Source?
A secondary source describes, discusses, analyzes or interprets information about an event, object, or person, etc.
Once you have found what looks like an interesting website with a plethora of primary sources, what is your next step? Look critically at where the information comes from. You want to be confident that the sources you've found e.g. scanned images, are reliable and represent an accurate depiction of the original document. Determining the origin or source of an item is referred to as determining the “provenance.”
As a student who may be required to evaluate a full-text primary source online, how might you go about determining the quality and reliability of a primary source website? Using the criteria presented below can help you assess the value of the sources you have found.
Websites produced by educational or governmental institutions with collections of primary sources are generally of higher quality than personal websites. . Common domain codes are:
Some pages explicitly state their purpose, others do not. Check for an “about” or “FAQ” link — these links often provide information about the purpose of the site.
Assessing Website Accuracy and Content
Determining the Origin of the Document In a website of primary sources it is important to determine where the individual or organization acquired the documents. Different factors need to be considered based on the format of the document and type of site:
Scanned image of a document: The image of scanned documents usually illustrates what the original documents look like. The origin of the documents at a website may be determined by the creator of the website. For example, the Library of Congress website generally supplies documents from its own manuscript collections, but for other organizations providing in-house documents is not always possible.
Transcribed document: Transcribed documents do not illustrate the original image of the document but only provide the content in plain text format. It is important to discover the original source of transcribed documents to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. The source, which may be the original documents or published editions, should be cited.
Evaluating Content and Arrangement Is the content clearly explained, organized and accessible?
Good web design not only makes an electronic resource easier to use, it is also one indication that the content has been provided, and is being maintained, by a trustworthy source. Although standards of what constitutes “good web design” vary widely, clarity, simplicity and easily-understandable navigational cues are some of the obvious signs. Some considerations are: searchable document text ;pages that are legible with clear explanations; obvious navigational aids that provide access to documents; obvious links on every webpage to the homepage; and individual URLs for each document for ease of linking and citation information.
"Evaluating Primary Sources", American Library Association, January 12, 2015.
(Accessed October 8, 2019)