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DSCI 350M/LIB 350M Humanities Research Data Management

A course guide for Humanities Research Data Management

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This guide has content that is adapted from the following universities & academic libraries

Special thank you to Emily Moore from UO Libraries Special Collections and Archives, and Frida Heitland, DSCI 350M/LIB 350M Winter 2024 Graduate Teaching Assistant, for aiding in the development of this course research guide.

Questions to Ask While Evaluating Primary Sources

Evaluating Primary Sources

It is important to examine primary sources with a critical eye since they represent unfiltered records of the past. Below are some questions to consider once you've found a primary source(s):

American Library Association's Guiding Questions to Evaluating Primary Sources: 

  • Who is the author or creator?
  • ​What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What is the origin of the primary source?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
  • Has the source been edited or translated, or altered in some way from the original?
  • What questions could be answered about the time period by using this source?
  • What, if any, are the limitations of the source?
  • Does your understanding of the source fit with other scholars’ interpretations, or does it challenge their argument?

Whether using primary or secondary sources, in print or online, an essential step in the research process is evaluating your sources.  Good scholarship requires careful reading and critical analysis of information.

Basic evaluation criteria for all sources (primary, secondary, and tertiary) include the following questions:

Adapted from The Information-Literate Historian by Jenny L. Presnell (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007):

Author Authority 

  • Who created the item? 
  • What is his or her affiliation? 
  • What is his or her relationship to the information contained in the source?

Audience and Purpose

  • Who is the intended audience? 
  • Why was the item created?

Accuracy and Completeness

  • Is the evidence reliable? 
  • Are the important points covered? 
  • How does the source compare to other similar sources? 
  • What may have been left out?

Footnotes and Documentation

  • Are the author's sources in secondary and reference literature clearly identified with complete citations to allow you to find the original source yourself?

Perspective and Bias

  • How do the author's bias and perspective inform the arguments and evidence presented?

Sources & Testimonies

Use this table to help you determine what is a primary source, secondary source, and determining with your research question.

Source Type


Primary source

A primary source is a book, item, photograph or other work that was made by a person or group as part of their regular activities and life.

Birth certificates, pictures, diaries, letters, embroidered samples, clothes, kitchenware, images, sound recordings, art, and newspapers are examples of primary sources.

Secondary source

The term "secondary source" refers to summaries, first-person narratives, and interpretations of events written by those who were not present but may have read or heard about them. 

Books or essays about the subject, artworks showing the event, letters or diaries that relate the author's perspective of what was related to them by another source, and artwork illustrating the event are a few examples.

It could be determined by the question you are posing

Depending on the question you ask, the same document may serve as a main and secondary source.  If you're wondering what transpired at Ford's Theater that evening, for instance, you may find second-hand evidence in a Baltimore newspaper's report of Lincoln's passing that includes unattributed versions of what happened there. 

However, the newspaper is a significant source for addressing the question of how and what information Baltimore residents learned about Lincoln's killing.

This table was adapted from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives.

Use this table as a reference resource that can help you approach determining what is a first-person testimony, second-hand testimony, and a mixed source.

Types of Testimonies

First person testimony

An account of a person who actually participated in an event.

Examples are oral history interviews, diaries, letters, original scientific research, laws and regulations, photographs and drawings of events, and court testimony of an eyewitness.

Second-hand testimony

Second-hand testimony, often known as hearsay, is an account given by someone who was not there when the incident occurred. 

Illustrations based on other people's observations, letters that repeat a tale recounted to the writer, newspaper articles from interviews with observers, and books written about a subject are a few examples.

First-person and Second-hand testimony found in a primary source

First-person and second-hand testimony may both be found in a primary source document. 

An illustration would be a journal entry that includes both first-person testimony—a person's personal views of an event—and second-hand testimony—additional stories the writer has been told by a family member.  Newspapers frequently blend first-hand and second-hand accounts.

This table was adapted from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives.