Loyola University Chicago Libraries

Primary and Secondary Resources: Evaluating Primary Resources on the Web

Evaluating Primary Resources on the Web

Before relying on the information provided by a website, try to examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning.

Websites sometimes use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, often distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Sites can also use primary source material haphazardly, for example, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.

In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institutions are often more reliable than personal websites (although government sites may be subject to propaganda).

Evaluation Tips

When evaluating Primary Resources on the Web, try asking the following questions:

  • Who is responsible for the website?
  • Hints from URLs -- many URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) include the name and type of organization sponsoring the webpage. The 3-letter domain codes and 2-letter country codes provide hints on the type of organization. Common domain codes include:

 Domain

 Sample Address

  .edu = educational institution

  http://docsouth.unc.edu

  .gov = US government site

  http://memory.loc.gov

  .org = organization or association

  http://www.theaha.org

  .com = commercial site

  http://www.historychannel.com

  .museum = museum

  http://nc.history.museum

  .net = personal or other site

  http://www.californiahistory.net

 

  • Check for an Author -- ​identity the name of the author or organization responsible for the page by looking for the following information:
    • Credentials -- who is the author or organization and what sort of qualifications do they have?
    • Contact address -- is an email or some other contact information given?
    • "About" link -- is there an "about," "background," or "philosophy" link that provides author or organizational information?

  • Is there a clear purpose or reason for this site?
    Websites can be created for a variety of purposes: to disseminate information, provide access to collections, support teaching, sell products, persuade, etc. Discovering the purpose can help determine the reliability of the site and the information it provides. ​Some pages explicitly state their purpose while others do not.
    To find information about the purpose:
    • Check for an "about" link -- these links often provide some information about the purpose of the site.
    • Find the homepage for the site -- sometimes page includes the "about" link or other clues on the purpose of the organization sponsoring the site.
    • Look for an agenda -- are documents slanted in some way to persuade you? If the purpose of the website is to persuade, you should examine the material very closely before accepting it as fact.
       
  • How can I determine the origin of a document?
    The best websites clearly state the source of the original material. With said, several factors still need to be considered based on the format of the document and type of site:
    • Scanned image of a document -- the image of scanned documents usually illustrate what the original document looked like. The origin of a document at a website may be determined by the creator of the website. For example, the Library of Congress website generally supplies documents from its own manuscript collections, but providing in-house documents is not always possible. Therefore, sometimes websites will present texts from other document collections, or they might provide links to documents at other websites.
    • Transcribed documents -- these do not illustrate the original image of the document but only provide the content in plain text format. It is important to discover the original source of transcribed documents to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. The source, which may be the original document or published editions, should be cited.
    • Links to external documents -- meta sites that link to external documents and web sites that use frames require you to track down the original website for the documents for evaluation purposes. A reliable website may link to a document in another not-so-reliable site, and vice-versa.
       
  • What do others say about the website?
    ​Check to see if the web site is reviewed:

You can also try finding out what other webpages link to the web site. How many links are there? What kinds of sites are they? Try a link search in Google.
 

  • Is the content clearly explained, organized, and accessible?
    ​Good web design not only makes an electronic resource easier to use, it is also one indication that the content has been provided, and is being maintained, by a trustworthy source. Although standards of what constitutes "good web design" vary widely, clarity, simplicity and easily-understandable navigational cues are some of the obvious signs. Some considerations are:
    • Pages that are legible with clear explanations.
    • Obvious navigational aid that provides access to documents and obvious links on every webpage to the homepage.
    • Individual URLs for each document for ease of linking and citation information.
    • Clear instructions about special software requirements.
       
  • What is the format of the Document? 
    An electronic version of a primary source can be either a scanned image of the original document (a facsimile) or an ASCII text or word processed version. Ideally, a primary source on the web should be made available in both forms when originals are difficult to read. They should also provide for keyword searching of the text. Facsimiles reproduce the layout, illustrations and other non-verbal information contained in the original document, and they allow the researcher to check the accuracy of other editions or versions of the document. ASCII text versions can be searched, quoted from easily (by copying into word-processing software) and they provide a back-up for illegible portions of facsimiles.
     
  • Is there a fee for use?
    Fee-based sites must be weighed against their value. It is possible that the same content, or similar content, is available through another electronic source free of charge. Public, school, and academic libraries may offer free access to fee based electronic collections of primary resources.

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