Interrogating Sources

Whatever subject you are researching you will not be able to use every source you find. You might not have the time to look at every single document. Some records that you think should exist, you will never find. One of the most valuable skills that researchers, such as historians, need to learn is how to be selective.

  • Accuracy is essential. It is therefore important to use and refer to the most reliable sources. A good rule of thumb is that the closer the source is to the event or issue you are investigating, the more reliable it is going to be. For example, the stories of an eyewitness, someone who was actually there, are more likely to be accurate than hearsay.
  • Locate and use a primary source document or record a first hand oral history account. Avoid relying on articles in tabloid newspaper and comments in unreferenced memoirs. If you are trying to find out whether something you have heard about really happened, or you want to establish a date for an object or event, primary sources are more likely to give you an accurate answer.
  • Acknowledge doubt. If you can’t find a definite answer or the information you find seems questionable, acknowledge that this is the case and that further research might be necessary.
  • Different opinions: If there is an area of doubt or an issue upon which there are different opinions or perspectives, or some controversy, it is important to investigate each point of view, rather than just trust widely held beliefs, common stories or myths. It is valuable to examine varied sources to gather different sides of the story and find potential answers to your historical questions. Always try to find intriguing stories to illustrate your points rather than just listing bland ‘facts’.
  • Surfing the web: Web resources should be subject to the same critical eye as other sources. A lot of information on the web can be inaccurate, subjective and incomplete. Check for footnotes and other references in the information provided. Check the credentials of the writers. Don’t believe everything you read.