We have gotten so caught up on the superiority of primary sources as documentation that we have failed to asked ourselves if we really understand the nature of these sources. What can various types primary sources tell us? More importantly, what can they NOT tell us? What are the characteristic natures of the source materials? What are the limits of the source materials? How can various types of primary sources be used to collaborate with each other? It is extremely difficult to determine these things just by looking at a few primary sources.
How can you learn more about the primary sources you might use before you try to work with them? The fastest way is to read and understand good, reliable secondary literature. There are so many books, especially in public libraries, that are garbage that we are afraid to use these sources. It has become so popular to denigrate secondary sources to favor primary ones, that we forget that it can be of enormous use to understanding those primary sources. How else can you quickly learn about what primary sources are reliable, what they can tell you and what they cannot tell you, and the numerous ways with which to work with them or interpret them.
With so much trash out there, how can you find useful, reliable secondary sources? This is a guide to sorting out better secondary sources from worse ones. It may not work every time (there are always crackpot authors who can structure their books to look like solid scholarship), but it should serve most of the time. It will be easier if you have access to an academic library or a better-than-usual public library which has scholarly indices, and maybe even online index searching, but you can use some of the basic techniques to help weed out books available at a small public library.
If you have an institution for higher learning in your area, you might want to make an appointment with an instructor in the field of your interest (if any) and ask for a recommended beginning bibliography. Another approach is to look at the college or university bookstore and list what books are being assigned to students of upper division and graduate classes.
Most importantly, use your common sense. Cast a critical eye at the book’s contents, introduction, conclusions, bibliography, citations, and author’s background. After you have examined the book and think you would like more information about that book, then check for reviews of the book. There are several sources for these: reviews in popular periodicals, reviews in scholarly journals, and reviews in scholarly works written after the book you are interested in was written.
Examining the Book/Article Itself
For what audience is the book directed? How general or specific is the subject?
Who wrote the book or article? What is the author’s background?
Was the book/article written recently?
Was the book/journal published by a scholarly publisher? Was it published by a college or university press, especially a well-known one?
Does the book/article have an extensive bibliography or source list? Does it use many primary sources itself? Were most of the secondary sources used written recently?
Does the text have citations (footnotes or endnotes)?
Read the introduction or review of literature.
Finding Reviews of the Books
You may be able to find a review of a book in such magazines as the Washington Post Book World or the New York Times Book Review. Your library may have them in microfilm or microfiche or online (if the book was written recently). Scholarly (and nonscholarly) works are often reviewed in these two sources by other scholars (who sometimes give hints to other worthwhile sources). Some online sources such as ProQuest may also have text of reviews as well. Check with your librarian to help you find such reviews.
Another source for reviews is the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Look up the book by either its title or its author, and if there are any indexed reviews, the Reader’s Guide … will give you citations for what periodical and which issue in which the review can be found. The Reader’s Guide … only indexes popular periodicals which may review an especially scholarly book or give the book a very critical review. For these, you may have to go the kinds of indices found at academic libraries. Also, ask the reference librarian if there are other sources for such reviews available in your library.
Another way is to find an even more recent scholarly book on the subject and read its review of literature (in arts and humanities books, this is usually included in the introduction). This will often tell you if the book is respected in the field, what was good about it, and what was weak about it. If the book you want to read is mentioned favorably, it is probably a good source. If it is not mentioned at all and it does not appear in the bibliography, be cautious. (1)
Academic Libraries and First-Rate Public Libraries
Scholarly Journal Book Reviews
Important scholarly books are reviewed by peer scholars in specialized journals and these are good sources for determining the quality of a book you might want to read. They also point you to other books you might find useful as well. Most of these journals are rarely found in public libraries, but most academic (and such superior public libraries as the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress) will have some academic journals. You can speed your search for such reviews if you use one or more indexes. Some of these are:
Many libraries have these on-line or on CD-ROM so you can speedily do an author or title search. The index will list review articles titles, reviewers, and the publication data you need to find the reviews. Keep in mind that a controversial book is not necessarily a bad book. It very well might present a new argument or new way of looking at evidence that will become the standard interpretation in the next few years.
These indices are also invaluable for finding suitable articles in scholarly journals. You can do keyword, author, and title searches which sometimes yield an overwhelming number of articles. Do not neglect such articles in your research, for they often have more up-to-date interpretations, evidence, and theories than books since the first-draft-to-print time is much shorter.
When you are satisfied that you have a good source, read the book or article with a critical mind. Examine and note the assumptions the author used, the sources used, the way the author uses those sources, and the logical consistency of the work itself. Keep in mind that there are many plausible ways to interpret available evidence and nothing is ever carved in stone.
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