Let’s Research: Understanding Sources

Let's Research series generic header image featuring booksAs a writer (people, in general, need this, too), understanding sources is vital. Not all sources are created equal, and because they are created by humans, one has to look at the creator of any text to see what biases or agendas they might have. Sometimes, veracity can be impacted by creator biases or unintentionally by having faulty information on hand. Taking sources with a grain of salt is doubly important in the current digital age.

But let’s first break down the different ways sources are categorized.

Types of Sources

Primary Sources

Anne Frank sitting at school desk.
Diaries like Anne Frank’s are considered primary sources. (Public Domain Photo)

Every time I turned in a research paper in any of my college history courses, it was expected to contain primary sources, usually at least two, in its bibliography. So what are primary sources? Well, they are firsthand accounts that were created during the time period you are researching; they are also often called contemporary sources. Going back to the actual time period and what people during it were saying is important because history morphs, people with axes to grind modify it, and it can take centuries for historians to work through those obfuscations–a good case study is Anne Boleyn, who had her appearance modified by sources long after she was dead.

Primary documents include original documents (letters, diaries, research papers, speeches, minutes, interviews, court records, governmental records, newspapers, etc.), creative works of the period (novels, music, arts, poetry, advertisements, etc.), and artifacts.

Secondary Sources

Book sale photo
Most of the books found in bookstores, minus vintage or rare ones, will be secondary sources. (MrsBrown via Pixabay)

Secondary sources are probably the most familiar as they are what we see in the modern bookstore–well, at least one form of them. They are also found in research journals, schools, and commentaries. Secondary sources, according to the University of Minnesota Crookston, “offer an analysis or restatement of primary sources. They often try to describe or explain primary sources. They tend to be works which summarize, interpret, reorganize, or otherwise provide an added value to a primary source.”

These include textbooks, criticisms, biographies, histories, journal articles, commentaries, etc. Any secondary source worth any scholarly merit will have a bibliography that details its primary sources, enabling you to visit them for yourself. This can be great as their primary sources might contain other gems for your project that weren’t a fit for theirs, thus didn’t make it into their text.

Tertiary Sources

Also called access sources, tertiary sources help catalog and locate primary and secondary sources. Think databases, bibliographies (I love a good one), subject guides, online catalogs, subject directories, and search engines.

For a quick cheat sheet, here is a printable.

Sources To Back Up Sources

OK, we have the basics of how sources are categorized. Now we need to enforce the mantra: Sources are not infallible. They are created by humans.

British Flying Ace Albert Ball
Newspapers are always in a rush to get information out and mistakes happen. I discovered an erroneous report in an Indiana newspaper that British flying ace Albert Ball had been taken prisoner.
Side note, I might have had a crush on a long-dead British aviator in junior high. (Public Domain Photo)

For my historical fiction novel, I’ve been poring over a bunch of digitized newspapers. In one 1917 edition, a headline blared that British flying ace, Albert Ball, had been found alive and was now a POW. Having read a lot about WWI aviation in the past, my heart clenched reading this because I knew Albert Ball died in his encounter with Jasta 11.

Misinformation can happen with contemporary sources, either due to lack of accurate information at the time, taking rumors as truth, or intentionally strewing inaccuracies to bolster personal biases or agendas.

Taking in a variety of sources, from different contemporary sources to more modern secondary sources, is important. It is perhaps the only way to fully arrive at your own interpretation and capture the most truth of any given era or historical event.

Relying too much on secondary sources can doubly open the way to biased interpretations, particularly when it comes to near-contemporary sources. Near contemporaries usually come in a good time after events with axes to grind (as time-wise, they are close enough to still feel very personal about events), though not always. It becomes a matter of taking any source with a grain of salt. This can include researching the individual putting out the information.

A good example of doing this is The Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society’s video, Did Anne Boleyn miscarry a deformed foetus? The presenter really examines the source that first proposed this “fact” and how he had every desire to discredit Boleyn as he wanted her daughter, Elizabeth I, removed from the throne and Catholicism restored.

Grant by Ron Chernow cover
“Grant” by Ron Chernow is just one of the scholarly reexaminations that are being completed in regards to Ulysses S. Grant.
It is currently one of the books in my “to-be-read” pile.

Another interesting case study into how interpretations can morph over time is the U.S. Civil War. In the late-19th Century and early 20th Century, near contemporaries really impacted how the war was viewed throughout the U.S., through film (Birth of a Nation), the placement of monuments, and impacting scholarship/the education system. It is these centuries that really propagate the Lost Cause ideology (though I’m being very cursory on the topic, leaving you to read up on it). One key figure’s legacy, Ulysses S. Grant,  was really affected by this, with him being discounted as a drunk, a butcher, and a horrible president for a long time. It has taken until the 2010s for historians to peel back these assumptions and reexamine Grant’s legacy. In fact, the 2010s are really becoming the golden age of Grant scholarship.

Likewise, if you are writing about historically under-represented peoples, now is a good time to be alive as scholarship is finally catching up and uncovering histories that had been buried or deemed unimportant by previous scholars. The number of stories being uncovered by scholars is exciting, and I think I learn something new each day because of this.

Trust your instincts when it comes to sources. Take your time and research where information is coming from and back up your sources with sources.

Digital Age: Scrutinize Online Sources

Wikimedia Logo
(By Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10309782)

With the internet, information is only seconds away, but verifying where it is coming from–and thus biases and agendas–becomes harder. Wikipedia is a great launching point for research, but it should not be your only source. Anyone can edit entries. So, verify any information you glean from it. Start with the entry’s citations and bibliography. Follow them to their sources and vet those sources for their own potential biases or gaps in veracity.

Do likewise with any website or blog, which can be hard as website ownership is often hidden, though there are tools to uncover this sort of information. Website information may be good, but you want to verify with your primary and secondary sources as there are too many websites that present opinions as facts and their own biased versions of history as reality. They may link to sources, but these sources are usually slanted to that version they want to portray so tread carefully and rinse and repeat the steps you use with any source.

While I sound extremely paranoid about researching online, good avenues do exist! For me, they have been governmental sites, scholarly sites, a handful of very well-researched blogs that are backed up by legit sources, YouTube channels, and more.

Be open to resources but properly vet them. That is the key to good research.

Join me next week for part three of the Let’s Research series, which will be about finding experts to aid in research efforts. Part one is available here.


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

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