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History: Evaluating Information

This guide list resources that will get you started on doing historical research. Some sources will be more specific on certain periods and geographical locations.

Dominant narratives

A dominant narrative is an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies. It usually achieves dominance through repetition, the apparent authority of the speaker (often accorded to speakers who represent the dominant social groups), and the silencing of alternative accounts. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither.

Even supposedly unbiased reference source articles can perpetuate dominant narratives.  For example, there have been cases of articles on Latin American history written by oil company executives in reputable, edited history reference sources.  Most reference source articles are signed - Google the author and verify his/her credentials!

Ask yourself these questions when you suspect the explanation of an event;

  • Who do you suppose would say this?
  • Why would they say this?
  • Who does this narrative benefit? Who does it harm?
  • What assumptions are being made?
  • How does it function rhetorically? (you may need to parse this question if they are unfamiliar with rhetoric)
  • What narratives is it attempting to silence?
  • Why do you suppose this narrative had power?

Evaluating your sources is an ongoing process.

The types of materials you need to evaluate during the research process include books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and electronic resources such as Web sites. Although a book is very different than a newspaper article, you may evaluate any source of information by using the criteria below. A resource may meet only three or four out of the five criteria, yet it may provide you with valuable information.


I.                   Accuracy—reliable, error-free, verified information

·         Most traditional print resources have editors, peer-review committees, or fact-checkers to assess accuracy.  This provides quality control.

·         The rigor of the editorial/quality control process can vary widely from publication to publication.

·         Anyone can publish anything on the Internet; editors for Internet resources are often non-existent.


II.        Authority—author’s qualifications & sponsor’s reputation

·         Popular publications, print & electronic, often have no author indicated, or they do not specify an author’s or sponsor’s credentials. 

·         Scholarly items usually disclose complete author/sponsor information.

·         Citing sources strengthens the credibility of the information. (Remember this when you write a research paper).  Look for a bibliography.

·         The last part of a Web site's domain name tells the type of organization or country sponsoring the site (e.g. Olympic College’s domain name is oc.ctc.edu).

.com    =         commercial entities (new ones may be under .biz)

.edu     =         educational institutions

.gov     =         government bodies

.mil      =         military

.net      =         companies providing computer network services

.org      =         non-profit organizations; however this may be bought by anyone

.uk       =         United Kingdom

.ca        =         Canada


III.       Objectivity/Motive

·         Some authors show a minimum of bias, or acknowledge their bias.

·         It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion.  Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts.  Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.

·         Many works are designed to sway opinion, or there is blatant promotion, advertising, or a product being sold.

·         Frequently the goals or motives of authors or sponsors are not clearly disclosed. 

·         The Internet often serves as a virtual soapbox.


IV.       Currency

Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic?  Some work is timeless, like the thought provoking philosophical work of Aristotle and Plato.  Other work has a limited useful life because of advances in the discipline.  You must therefore be careful to note when the information you find was created, and then decide whether it is still of value.  Books are dated by year.  Magazines and journals are dated by month and year.  Newspapers are dated by a day.  Internet sites may show no date at all.  One method to use in checking the currency of an Internet site is to see if the links are current, i.e., have links expired or moved?

·         Dates may indicate--

            When the item was first written.

            When the item was first published or placed in the Internet.

            When the item was last revised.


V.                 Coverage

Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information?  You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.  No single piece of information will offer the truly complete story—that’s why we rely on more than one source.


Articles in magazines and journals highlight one facet of a topic.  The coverage may be substantive, popular, or sensational.  Substantive generally has a sober, serious approach to every topic.  Substantive articles are often based on research.  Popular refers to the “general public”, or everyone.  Sensational articles are intended to arouse reaction or interest.


·         Internet coverage often differs from print coverage.  On a positive note, topics of immediate interest (hot stuff) may be available on the Internet long before print is available (with the exception of newspaper coverage).

·         Extent of coverage is often difficult to determine unless you compare several like items on the same topic.  Compare books to books; journal articles to journal articles.

·         With so many sources to choose from in a typical search, there is no reason to settle for unreliable material.




 Sources Consulted 


Beck, Susan E. Evaluation Criteria. September 1999.  New Mexico State University Library. 24 January 2000 <http://lib.nmsu.edu/staff/susabeck/evalcrit.html>.


Harris, Robert.  Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  November 1997.  Vanguard University of Southern California. 24 January 2000 <http://www.sccu.edu/faculty/R_Harris/evalu8it.htm>.


Ormondroyd, Joan, et. al.  How to Critically Analyze Information Sources.  October 1996.  Cornell University Library.  24 January 2000 <http://www.library.cornell.edu/okuref/research/skill26.htm>.


Fact checking websites