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Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources Found Online

Once you have located a primary source pertaining to your topic, you should ask yourself where the information comes from. Is it an accurate representation of the original? Everything on the web is virtual, in contrast to sources you can hold in your hand, so an extra level of caution is needed. 

By following these steps, you can be reasonably confident that the artifact you see on your screen is a genuine facsimile of the original:

You are evaluating whoever caused the artifact to be on the web, rather than the artifact itself. Look for the name of this individual or organization.

  • Look for information about the website where the artifact appears; e.g. an "about" link
  • If the website belongs to an individual, try Googling the name, or searching for it in the Library's website 

The Body of Liberties of the Massachusets Collonie in New England, is a transcribed document dated 1641. There is a citation at the bottom of the page: 

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 3
The University of Chicago Press

If you paste the link in to a browser it leads to the Founders' Constitution site. A link on this homepage, About Founders provides information on the University of Chicago Press publication from which the documents are taken and gives information about the editors of the original printed volumes. 

  • What credentials does the individual or organization have?
  • Is there a contact address?

Educational and Government sponsored websites are generally more reliable than those run by individuals. One way to recognize the origin of a website is the URL extension, as below:

.edu = educational institution

.gov = US government site

.org = organization or association

.com = commercial site

.net = personal or other site

  • Who is the intended audience for the site, and what is their level of sophistication? How well is the website written?
  • What is the purpose of the site? Is it purely scholarly, or is there an intention to persuade? Is something for sale? In either of these cases, bring an extra layer of caution to your examination of artifacts presented. Again, look for an "About" tab to identify the origin of the site.

The  above derived from "Evaluating Primary Sources", American Library Association, January 12, 2015 (Accessed October 31, 2017)

Document ID: 9e2d17be-df12-f754-c9aa-a827a6dc893f