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Evaluating Source Documents

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

The Historical Detective Agency is an informal network of like minded historians, researchers, and intelligence analysts dedicated to maintaining professional objectivity and accuracy in the craft of history.

Sources fall within either "primary" or "secondary" categories. Secondary sources naturally seem to undergo a critical examination. However, many times, primary sources are not given the basic level of examination that they should. A good researcher will always evaluate primary source documents.

Primary source documents must be evaluated to both validate the information as well as adjust for potential biases and shortcomings. For evaluating sources Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier have developed a 7 step critical analysis method that is efficient and effective. (1)

7 Elements of Critical Analysis:

1. Genealogy of the document - is the document authentic; is it an original or a copy?

2. Genesis of a document - who created the document, where, and when?

3. “Originality” of the document - historian must know something about the tradition around a document in order to read it properly?

4. Interpretation of the document - deciphering the intended meaning of the document

5. Authorial Authority - with what authority does the writer speak from?

6. Competence of the observer - factors particulars to the individual observer and competence pertaining to the time in which the observer lived?

7. Trustworthiness of the observer - does the observer have any bias?

Many times authors will not evaluate their source document. This can create a cascade effect that compounds errors that then become difficult to identify and correct.

Some excellent examples of a failure to properly conduct critical analysis on source documents are

Failure to examine the genealogy, genesis, interpretation, and trustworthiness was the use of a North Korean monument on Tinian Island, which was used by Laura Hillebrand in her book Unbroken, which will be covered more in a future Case File on this site. Hillebrand used two sources that referenced a North Korean monument on Tinian containing a poem of lost souls. One source mentioned the monument but failed to note both it's origin, bias of both the source mentioning the monument as well as the monument itself, and the trustworthiness of the interpretation. The other source cited was not competent to assess the monument or the events listed. Other examples of the trustworthiness of a document are the failure to examine the bias in descriptions by plantation owners in the Southern United States found in diary's and letters. Without identifying the bias, for generations many were provided a view of slavery that did not describe it accurately.

The most under-examined aspect of a source document seems to be authorial authority and competence of the writer. Many times, a source document is cited because it contains an emotionally charged account of an event, and enlivens the writing of the book or article using it. However, many documents were written by people without the technical ability to assess what they were writing about. Even for events they have seen, some people are not capable of properly assessing it, and will write about it inserting many false inferences. Was a document about a plague written by a medical professional? Even if one witnesses a plague and writes about it, the document is only valid to the skill set the writer is able to access. Is a private in the military writing about strategy? Is a non medical volunteer writing about what caused a death? Is a non economist writing about economic causes of a depression, etc. Without substantiating evidence from valid source writers, the evidence must be presented with the limitations clearly noted by the author of the book or article. However, many times this is lacking.

Sources cited:

1. Howell, Martha and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources and Introduction to Historical Methods. (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.), p. 61-68.

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