Selecting and Evaluating Secondary Sources
Selecting good secondary sources
This section is drawn largely from "Evaluating Print Sources" from the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.
- Who is the author?
- Have you heard this person’s name before? Was the author referenced by a source you have used previously?
- Are credentials provided (for example, in the acknowledgements page of a book)? If they are not provided, are they quickly searchable online?
- Who is the publisher?
- Did a university press — for example, Oxford University Press or University of California Press — publish the text? You can be relatively sure that if a university press published the book, it has been held to a high academic standard.
- Or did a popular press — Penguin or Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich — publish it? Popular presses differ in their standards so should be subject to more careful investigation on your part.
- What is the date of the publication? Newer scholarship is usually preferable, so if there is a more recent book on the same topic, make sure that you look at it. Maybe the author found new evidence that drastically alters the argument of the first book. However, it is often acceptable to go back twenty or even thirty years if you have found an otherwise strong academic text.
- Note that the age of a work can be easy to determine, but it is sometimes tricky. The page that has all the publisher’s information has a copyright date. Has the work been translated? If so, that date is probably the date of the translation. Is there more than one date listed on the page? In that case, you probably have a newer edition. If so, the author wrote most of the book at the time of the first date of publication, although new information may have been added since then.
Evaluating secondary texts
Evaluating secondary sources consists of two important skills: knowing how to read and knowing how to write. To help us with this exercise, I have borrowed liberally from Patrick Rael, Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students (Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 2004) [The entirety of this useful guide can be accessed online, here]. While I have made a few small edits below, assume that all meaningful description between here and the footnotes is borrowed directly from that source.
Try these five steps:
Try these five steps:
- Read the title. Define every word in the title; look up any unknown words. Think about what the title promises for the book. Look at the table of contents. This is your "menu" for the book. What can you tell about its contents and structure from the TOC?
- Read a book from the outside in. Read the foreword and introduction (if an article, read the first paragraph or two). Read the conclusion or epilogue if there is one (if an article, read the last one or two paragraphs). After all this, ask yourself what the author's thesis might be. How has the argument been structured?
- Read chapters from the outside in. Quickly read the first and last paragraph of each chapter. After doing this and taking the step outlined above, you should have a good idea of the book's major themes and arguments.
- You are now finally ready to read in earnest. Don't read a history book as if you were reading a novel for light pleasure reading. Read through the chapters actively, taking cues as to which paragraphs are most important from their topic sentences. (Good topic sentences tell you what the paragraph is about.) Not every sentence and paragraph is as important as every other. It is up to you to judge, based on what you know so far about the book's themes and arguments. If you can, highlight passages that seem to be especially relevant.
- Take notes. Many students attempt to take comprehensive notes on the content of a book or article. I advise against this. I suggest that you record your thoughts about the reading rather than simply the details and contents of the reader. What surprised you? What seemed particularly insightful? What seems suspect? What reinforces or counters points made in other readings? This kind of note taking will keep your reading active, and actually will help you remember the contents of the piece better than otherwise.