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Critical Assessment of Primary and Secondary Sources

This LibGuide is intended to work through the process of analyzing and assessing primary and secondary sources.

Think about this

What answers did you come up for the following questions? there are are various possible answers. The key to this thought process is to expand your expectations of how primary documents can be used in your research. 

What kind of research topic would this document be an obvious primary source for? 

  • As this documented was created as part of an administrative and economic transaction in the court system, the document addresses how the court system operated administratively, and the decisions that were being made by court administrators regarding functional operations. 

If we expand our idea of how to use this document as a primary source, what other kinds of research would this be helpful for?

Examples include:

  • History of automation within office environments
  • Development of retail IBM products
  • Contract law
  • Fiscal management within the court systems

What kinds of other primary and secondary sources can we use to help us understand this document and our research?

Examples include:

  • Court annual reports (primary)
  • Histories of computer use in administrative offices (secondary)
  • Newspaper articles about court expenditures and public perception (primary/secondary)
  • Oral histories with individuals who were employed by the court system during this time period and who were affected by the introduction of the computer (primary)

Additional thoughts to ponder

In order to fully contextualize the document you just read, it would be a good idea to answer the following questions: 

  • What was going on economically in the US at this point in time? Was the interest rate they were charged low or high for the time? 
  • Notice how much was paid for the computer monitor, printer, and the CPU. Things have definitely changed in the computer retail market! Where do you think the money came from to buy this equipment? Was the court house's budget increased to allow for the purchase? Were jobs cut in order to fund the purchase? was a grant given? 
  • What impact would the computer have had in office procedures? Were typists retrained? Were the typists relocated within the court system, and if so, what impact did their move have within the departments they went to?   

Annotated document


Now that you have read the document, compare your answers to the annotated version that is attached on this page.

Do you have different answers? If so, did you identify something differently than in the annotated version? there are sometimes various ways that the 5W's (and an H!) can be answered, however, for the purposes of this exercise, the annotated version provides the best answers to the questions.

An interesting piece of information to know is that this computer--in 1986--was the first one purchased by the Bristol County, 2nd District Court system. 

Just for fun

Below are some images related to the document you just spent time analyzing. This is the set up that was being purchased!

Image courtesy of IBM          Image courtesy of IBM Collectables                                              

Pay attention to the size of the computer monitor. How big is your laptop screen right now?

How hot do you think this set-up got? do you think a purpose built space was required? 

Go back to the document and look at the memory of the CPU.

  • 256K: you would need 4 of these to have 1MB of memory…how much memory does your cell phone have right now?


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Claire T. Carney Library
Room 237
285 Old Westport Road
Dartmouth, MA 02747