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Magic in the Middle Ages: Evaluating Information/Search Tips

This section is intended to help students understand the language necessary for historical inquiries and study. This will also prove useful when conducting searches for historical and reference sources as the language used to isolate a certain kind of source relies heavily on an understanding of language and context. The study of history endeavors to cultivate a critical understanding of past and present human societies that helps students become informed, thoughtful and engaged participants in the world. The study of history challenges our preconceived notions and narratives of the past and requires thoughtful language to explore topics of study.

Evaluating Primary Sources

It is important to examine Primary sources with a critical eye, as they will be used as the core evidence in historical scholarship. 

RUSA 's Guide to Evaluating Primary Source (linked below) asks you to consider the following when evaluating a primary source:

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?

The University of California, Irvine has determined the 6 C's of Primary Source Analysis:

Content - What is the main idea? Describe in detail what you see

Citation - When was this created?

Context - What is going on in the world, the country, the region, or the locality when this was created?

Connections - Link the primary source to other things that you already know or have learned about.

Communication - Is this source reliable?

Conclusions - Ask yourself: How does the primary source contribute to our understanding of history? 

Source Types

Source- any written or non-written materials that can be used to investigate the past. 

Primary Source- a primary source is material that was created during the time under study, though they can also be created later but only if based off first-hand experience. They provide first hand testimony or direct and original evidence for the topic of study. It is necessary to locate, analyze, and craft ones own understandings of the past from a wide range of primary sources, and place such analysis in the context of historical and interdisciplinary scholarship. Primary sources enable researchers to get the best possible understanding of the lived experiences of others as well as what actually occured in a certain time period. It is an important distinction in the initial stages of research to be able to differentiate primary from secondary source material. 

Examples: diaries, correspondence, photographs and illustrations, manuscripts, maps, pamphlets, newspaper articles from the time period, broadsides, posters, ephemera, autobiographical material, oral histories, speech transcripts, government documents

Secondary Source- A secondary source of information is one that was created later by a person who did not experience first-hand in the events, conditions, or period one is researching. For the purpose of historical research, secondary sources are generally scholarly books, articles, and reference sources like encyclopedias. Often the best secondary sources are those that have been published more recently, as it is important to know what contemporary scholarship has been written about the topic and what criticisms have been made of earlier approaches to the topic, to contextualize the scholarship within its field. The distinction between a Primary and Secondary source is not only crucial to the academic study of history, but also integral in finding relevant and reliable sources-- that is, having an understanding of the when and what of a source in order to begin research. 

Search Strategies

Primary source research requires some different strategies. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Start by doing some background research: Wikipedia and general library encyclopedias can help you determine key events, people, and common terminology used during the time period under study. It can be helpful to start by conducting a broad search to help locate important names or places. This will prove useful when conducting further searches for sources.

Limit Searches to Specific Time Periods: it is important to limit searches using date ranges to find primary sources, this is usually done through the advanced search options. Start with broader search terms combined with a more specific time period to account for changes in language, such as event names that were prescribed after the fact. It can help to include a few weeks surrounding an event to ensure getting results, with consideration for the rate of news to spread in that time period.

Use Primary Source language and keywords: To isolate primary sources, try using search terms that reflect the types of sources you want to find, such as speeches, pamphlets, diaries, correspondence, personal narratives, or firsthand. These terms can be combined with other descriptive key words. 

Refine Collection Type:  A tip for locating primary sources through libraries is using the collection type or department refinement option common in library catalog searches, sometimes located in the advanced search option. Most primary sources will be housed in a special collection or archive or in a specific department such as literary and historical manuscripts, unless available online  through databases that deal in digital formats of historical documents.

Utilize Archival Finding Aids: Often, archival collections will have finding aids, which are descriptive inventories of archival collections intended to help users locate and identify relevant material.