Written by Patricia Sipes
In the information age, there is a lot of misinformation. Things that seem to come from scholarly and reliable sources are not always what they seem. Additionally, in an age where free access and the public ability to change and manage information, nothing can be taken at face value. Everyone, whether it be on the internet, in print material, or even in archival material has an agenda, something that they are trying to achieve that shapes the end result of what is produced--how something is said, is as important (and sometimes more) than what is actually said.
It is almost inevitable that in your research you will use the internet (you are using it right now, I suspect). I am sure you have also heard the lectures on how the internet is the equivalent of a nuclear wasteland of information with mutated facts that seek to try to look and act normally. Part of this act is to hide under titles that we would often think were trustworthy, the biggest culprits .edu and .org.
It used to be that students were told that if it had either ending they were a pretty safe bet to use as reliable sources. This is NOT true. Anyone attached to a university (or school) often has access to .edu domains. The domains at .org were originally non-profit organizations and non-commercial individual causes sites; however that is, again, not always the case. There is the additional issue that just because something has a status of being an organization, it does not mean that it has to hold to a high standard of truth or promote non-bias.
There are a few strategies you can use when evaluating sources found online:
- Is the page written well? Is it written in a scholarly way that you would find in general print formats?
- Can you identify who the author of the page is? Can you find a biography for this person internally and external of the site?
- Are they writing on a subject that they are qualified to write?
- Are they even an academic?
- Do they have biases that are easy to see and may compromise your own research?
- Are the facts on the website able to be externally cooperated?
- Is there a bibliography of where the material came from? Can you find the items listed in the bibliography and confirm that not only are they valid sources, but that they do, indeed exist?
- You should always try and trace any sort of citation to its original source, if you cannot, there is no real guarantee that it exists.
- Can you identify when the page was written, if it is still maintained, and whether it is attached to a reputable institution?
You should be able to thoroughly answer all of the above questions before making a decision on whether the item is a viable source or not.
Books hold almost as many problems as the internet. Granted it is not as easy to change a passage in a book (most people will notice if you try and glue a page on top of another one), but it is the ingrained belief that most of us have grown up with that books are not particularly set up to lie to us that is dangerous. We have some level of suspicion towards magazines and newspapers, but not always towards books. Much like the internet, you have to be careful at what names you trust in the publishing world, and with the rise of self-publishing issues can get continuously murky. Every piece of written material has some sort of slant or bias, it is your job, as a researcher (and general reader), to understand and be able to separate the bias from the facts.
Much of what is included in the internet section is also applicable for printed materials. Here are some guidelines for looking at the validity of the source:
- Who is/are the author(s)? What is in their biography? What credentials do they hold? Are they qualified to be writing on the subject?
- Who is the publisher? What sorts of other books does the publishing company publish? What sort of bias does this show?
- This also demonstrates what sorts of critical lenses they look at works with, which can help you better decide if the way the author is writing will support your ideas or not.
- How old is the book? Is the pertinent information to your project something that could have changed since the publication? What edition is the book? Is it considered a revised or edited edition?
- Is there a bibliography? Books considered scholarly without a bibliography are often highly suspect.
- Bibliographies of particularly good books are often good stepping stones for finding more research to support your project.
- Can you cooperate the information that is written, whether through their bibliography or your own searches?
You should be able to thoroughly answer all of the above questions before making a decision on whether the printed material is a viable source or not.
You have to understand that it is most likely you will find the most outwardly directed opinions in primary materials because they often contain uncensored emotions. Most people do not expect that fifty years down the line some one will have not only preserved a strongly written letter to a restaurant that gave you food poisoning, much less for it to be published in a collection with your other letters to sweet hearts, friends, and business acquaintances.
Thus, while primary material is fascinating to use, a lot more goes into taking it just on face value. If you head over to the "Using Primary and Archival Materials" section, the added precautions when dealing with primary sources are outlined.
For the purpose of this section, there are a few important questions to ask when evaluating an item as a valuable source:
- What archive or collection is the piece housed in? Much like the publisher question in the Book section above, the archive an acquired piece belongs to may show you what their main focus is, letting you better evaluate how it can help your research.
- What collection is it apart of? How is this person important to the subject that you are studying?
- Can you contextualize the piece in a timestream? If it is a letter or something that belongs chronologically with other things, do you have access to the full set?
- Is it a reproduction of the original, or the actual original?
Primary sources can be tricky to figure out as far as importance and validity to a project goes. Quite often the actual source sparks more questions in tangential directions than it helps solve your original question.
- Use bibliographies of trusted sources to find other things that may ring true to your project. Often if an author is writing through the same critical lens as the one you would like to use, his sources will do the same.
- Dissertation databases are a great place to find sources. Many times you can find not only the full dissertations, but abstracts and bibliographies that can help you on your way.
- If you are working on a topic that is liable to have a trust or organization, visit their website. Organizations and trusts built around authors often include not only a suggested reading list of the author's materials, but suggested biographies, critical works, and even listings of where archival/primary materials are housed.