“Working with primary sources is like detective work – leads must be followed, motives evaluated and stories matched for consistency,” says Leslie F. Stebbins. In the book Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age: How to Locate and Evaluate Information Sources (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 79, Stebbins offers some strategies you can use to analyze primary sources.
One critical factor to consider is “creator bias.” As Stebbins explains, “Every primary source has a creator and every creator has a point of view or bias. The bias in a source does not render it useless, but must be factored in when evaluating the information contained in a source. A photograph, for example, even before the days of computerized airbrushing, is influenced by the bias of the creator. Settings can be manipulated or the photographer can choose to take some pictures of an event and not others. When reading or viewing a primary source it is important to consider who the creator was and what their relationship was to the event or situation being recorded.”
Researchers, Stebbins notes, can ask questions like these:
- What was the creator’s view or purpose?
- What did the creator include and not include in his or her reporting?
- Was the source created on the spur of the moment or was more thought put into its creation?
- Did the creator see the event firsthand or did he or she report on what others related?
- Did the creator have a special interest in the event, or was he or she neutral?
- Was the creator producing something for his or her personal use, for a friend, or for the public?
- Is the language of the creator neutral or persuasive?
The author also explains how to analyze a primary source’s time and place, and internal and external consistency, what the creator decided to omit from the source, how to be selective in what you choose to use, and other factors. Learn more about each by checking out the discussion Critically Evaluate Primary Sources.
And remember, Stebbins emphasizes, to “Read critically and skeptically. Though some primary sources are believed to be more reliable than others, every source contains some weakness or bias. Think carefully about the social, political, and economic contexts in which a source may have been created.”