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Primary Sources for World History since 1500: Evaluating Primary Sources

Tips, resources, and strategies for completing the second primary source assignment for Dr. Daniel Barish's section of HIS 1305

Fact Checking Sources

Are there errors of time, place, or persons mentioned in your primary source?

Do the people, places, or organizations mentioned really exist?

Did this event happen on the day/time/place mentioned?

These are all questions you can ask and answer to fact check the reliability of the primary source you have found. The easiest way is to look for news reports from the time (major world newspapers like The Times (of London) and The New York Times will be reliable sources; remember to account for the time lag between the event's date and the time the news would have reached other countries). I've linked to these resources below.

Another source for fact checking is a reliable biography of the individual(s) involved. Search for the person's name with the keyword biography to locate one. What might be problematic about using an autobiography?

Reading for Bias

Reading for bias requires more than one reading. You'll read once to get the content, then again for facts, and then a third time for nuances. Nuances are the subtle cues often conveyed with body language when we are talking with one another, but in primary sources you need to look for other clues:

  • adjectives and adverbs - what kind of tone do they carry; 
  • words or phrases that diminish the experiences of others ("Let them eat cake," the quote from the French Revolution spoken about the peasants who didn't have bread is an extreme and easy to read example of this kind of diminishment)
  • visual images (or verbal descriptions of persons and places) - what is being chosen to represent this person or culture
  • who is the speaker and what agenda might she or he have
  • what kind of audience is being addressed by the primary source: aristocrats, peasants, intellectuals, working class, men, women 

So read closely and more than once; see what the fact checking sources mentioned to the right might have to say about the person or event as clues to bias.

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