Skip to Main Content

Critical Assessment of Primary and Secondary Sources

Critical assessment of secondary sources

Critical Analysis

“As history students, you use primary sources to document, as accurately as possible, past events or phenomena. Depending on your research question, newspapers and magazines might form part of the source base for your topic. Newspapers and magazines are not always primary sources, nor are they always the best sources for establishing what happened in the past. When they are appropriate primary sources, however, it's important that you avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions, or making false assumptions, about a source's reliability.” University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain

This exercise is intended to reinforce the skills you practiced in Part Two, specifically analyzing and reading comprehension, and to introduce additional reading skills that are useful for researchers when working with primary sources. These skills, usually utilized in the order they are listed, are: 

  1. Skimming
  2. Scanning
  3. Close reading and, 
  4. Corroborating. 

Researching using primary sources is a time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating, process. Always allow yourself triple the amount of time you think you need. This tripling is a fairly standard practice done by researchers who routinely use archives and other institutions that hold primary source materials.

The four reading methods work in conjunction with each other: you begin by skimming (general overview of the material) and/or scanning (locating specific facts), which then tell you which documents you will be doing close readings of, and based upon the close readings, you then decide which information needs to be corroborated. This methodology is particularly useful when there are large volumes of condensed information to be distilled.

Skimming 
While skimming can save you hours of laborious reading, it is not always the most appropriate way to read. It is a useful method to preview a more detailed reading or when reviewing a selection heavy in content. But when you skim, you may miss important points or overlook the finer shadings of meaning, for which a thorough reading will be required.

To skim, prepare yourself to move rapidly through the pages. You will not read every word; you will pay special attention to typographical cues-headings, boldface and italic type, indenting, bulleted and numbered lists. You will be alert for key words and phrases, the names of people and places, dates, nouns, and unfamiliar words. Some recommendations when skimming primary documents are:  

  • Glance through the document. Try and figure out if there are key points being made that are related to your research topic;
  • Stop and quickly read the sentences that appear to contain keywords, boldface, italics, highlighting, or that have annotations.
  • When you think you have found something significant, stop to read the entire sentence to make sure. Then go on the same way. Resist the temptation to stop to read details you don't need.

Good skimmers do not skim everything at the same rate or give equal attention to everything. While skimming is always faster than your normal reading speed, you should slow down in the following situations:

  • When you skim topic sentences
  • When you find an unfamiliar word
  • When the material is very complicated

Scanning 
Scanning, too, uses keywords and organizational cues. But while the goal of skimming is a bird's-eye view of the material, the goal of scanning is to locate and swoop down on particular facts.

Facts may be buried within long text passages that have relatively little else to do with your topic or claim. Skim this material first to decide if it is likely to contain the facts you need.

When you are scanning, it is important to:

  • Know what you're looking for. Decide on a few key words or phrases–search terms, if you will. You will be a flesh-and-blood search engine.
  • Look for only one keyword at a time. If you use multiple keywords, do multiple scans.
  • Let your eyes float rapidly down the page until you find the word or phrase you want.
  • When your eye catches one of your keywords, read the surrounding material carefully.

 Adapted from Skimming and Scanning (Butte College) 

Close reading

Close reading involves annotating text and looking for clues such as:  patterns, repetitions, contradictions, and similarities that help the reader better understand purpose, meaning, and interconnected ideas.  Close reading also involves posing questions, identifying main ideas, and paraphrasing key concepts.

Corroborating

Corroborating involves checking important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement. This is where secondary sources are utilized in research. Depending on the level of primary source research you are doing, it is not always possible to corroborate details which are provided in the document. It is your job as a researcher to assess if these details bear inclusion in your research as new historical evidence, or if they should be discredited, which requires an evidence based explanation of why they are not valid. 

Exercise instructions

The materials for this exercise are part of the Frank Silvia professional and personal papers (MC 187), in the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives.  

For this exercise, we ask that you read each group of articles sequentially, one at time, starting with group one and ending with group three. It is also a good idea to read the articles in the order they are attached.

As you read each group, keep in mind the 5 W's, and the answer the following questions as part of your analysis of this primary source:  

  1. What happened?
    • Can you please together the complete story of the event at this point? 
    • What else do you need to know to understand the event? 
  2. What stands out about the accused and the victim? 
    • Do you need additional contextual information to be able to understand their relationship?
    • Have you noticed anything about their names? 
  3. Who were the majority population in Fall River during this time period? do you think this affected how the case was reported? 
  4. Did you find anything else unusual about this case? 

It will be the answers to the 5 W's and the questions above that will allow you to have a greater understanding of the historical value of these primary sources. 

 

Think about this

Did your answers to the analysis questions change as your read each group of articles? 

Is there anything else you wish you had access to that would help you understand what happened in this case? 

What secondary sources do you think would be helpful if you were to write a research paper about this case? 

Things to consider

The newspaper articles in this exercise were obtained using two different sources, and using three different technologies:

  1. articles were scanned from a scrapbook;
  2. articles were photographed from a scrapbook;
  3. articles were scanned directly from microfilm.
  • Did you notice differences between the two sources?
  • Did the technology used to capture the image make a difference to you? 
  • Did you prefer one source over the other? 

While it may seem inconsequential how you obtain a copy of a newspaper article, there are things to consider:

  • is the article complete? 
    • does it have the date and newspaper it was taken from?
    • was it trimmed so that there are words missing?
    • is it missing pieces of text? 
  • can you manipulate the font size in order to facilitate reading the article? 

Whenever possible it is a good idea to revert to the closest version of the "original" article to ensure that you have the complete article.