Loyola University Chicago Libraries

Primary and Secondary Resources: Evaluating Primary Resources on the Web

Evaluating Primary Resources on the Web

Websites sometimes use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view by distorting content in subtle or even obvious ways. Sites can also use primary source material haphazardly, for example, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work. As a student who may be required to evaluate primary sources online, you’ll need to determine the quality and reliability of the resources you encounter on the web. In general, it’s best to look for websites with a balanced, non-biased approach to presenting information.

The criteria presented below can help you evaluate the true value of a primary resource found on the web.

Evaluation Tips

When evaluating Primary Resources on the Web, critically examine the website and consider the following:

  • Authority
    Who is responsible for the website? Look for the name of the author or organization responsible for the page. What are their qualifications or credentials? How about contact information (e.g. email, phone, physical location). This information can typically be found in the “About,” “Background,” or “FAQ” section(s) of the website. If no background information about the author/organization is given, try using Google to search for their name. If it’s an individual, you can also check out the Loyola Library Catalog to see if they’ve written other books or articles on your topic.
     
  • Purpose
    Websites are created to serve a variety of functions: to disseminate information, provide access to collections, support teaching, sell products, persuade, etc. Discerning the purpose, motive, or underlying agenda of a website can help you determine the quality of the information it provides. Some pages explicitly state their purpose while others do not. Information pertaining to the websites purpose can typically found in the “About,” “Background,” or “FAQ” section(s) of the page.
     
  • Audience
    The audience reading level can be inferred by the use of more specialized language. Was the website designed for a general audience looking for basic encyclopedic information? Or does the website look more like an elementary school report? A scholar, writing for an expert audience, may include citations and will use language that is frequently more academic.
     
  • Design
    Ask yourself: is the content clearly explained, organized, and accessible? Good web design not only makes an electronic resource easier to use, it is also one indiciation that the content has been provided, and is being maintained, by a trustworthy source. While standards of what constitutes “good web design” vary widely, things like clarity, simplicity and user-friendly navigational cues are often appropriate indicators.
     
  • Fee
    Fee-based sites must be weighed against their value. It’s possible that the same content, or similar content, is available through another electronic source free of charge. If you come across a pay wall, keep in mind that public, school, and academic libraries (like Loyola) often offer free access to fee-based electronic collections of primary sources.
     
  • URL
    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

 

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