Evaluating Secondary Sources
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?
A “coffee table” book for a general audience is likely to be less scholarly and less well-researched than one directed to a knowledgeable audience (it might however, have numerous, large photographs of primary sources and be a valuable resource for that reason).
Who wrote the book or article? What is the author’s background?
Better books will be written by scholars in the field. This does not mean that a writer must be or must have been in academia, but s/he would ideally have a track record of research and writing in the subject matter or solid academic or professional qualifications.
If the book/article does not give background about an author, ask the reference librarian where you might find information about that author.
Was the book/article written recently?
Recent authorship is, of course, no guarantee of quality, but scholars today receive much more scrutiny in their methods and interpretation than they did thirty, fifty, one-hundred years ago, that in general, more recent work is more reliable than older work. Again, it may depend on the author’s background; an older book written by a reputable scholar will probably be better than a recent one written by someone will no specialized knowledge or training in that subject area. Also, if you see older works frequently cited as being an important source in that area, don’t be afraid to use them.
Please note that new sources are being discovered and old sources are being reinterpreted all the time. Newer works often include the most recent sources, and point out the weaknesses of older interpretations.
Was the book/journal published by a scholarly publisher? Was it published by a college or university press, especially a well-known one?
These presses often subject their books to stringent critical review. The work may be controversial in a field, but it is less likely to be based on flimsy sources and sloppy research.
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?
Generally, the longer the bibliography/source list(s), the better and the more primary sources used, the better. However, it is better to have a shorter bibliography of high-quality sources than a longer one of poor quality.
Does the text have citations (footnotes or endnotes)?
While not every unfootnoted book is worthless; it takes a great deal of knowledge in an area to realize that the text is respectable anyway. Citations give you the chance to go back to the author’s sources to check them out for yourself. I feel much better about the work when there are citations in the text. Maybe it is my own paranoia, but when there are not citations in the text, I wonder what the author is trying to hide.
Read the introduction or review of literature.
In most scholarly books in the humanities, the introduction usually reviews work done by other scholars and what this author does to refute it or build upon it; in social sciences literature, the section that does that is called, appropriately, the “review of literature.” Whatever it is called,this chapter or section will give you a taste of the author’s style and tone and inform you about how well the author has done his/her homework. These sections also discuss the primary sources used, their advantages and limitations and how the author plans to use and interpret them. In a superior book, these are often indispensable to understanding primary sources.
2020 note: Since this was written, many online sources for verification now exist. Reference librarians are still among the best guides to which are useful resources.
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:
- Art Index (all kinds of visual art, including decorative arts)
- Humanities Index (history, arts, literature)
- MLA Bibliography (literature, history, arts)
- Social Sciences Index (archaeology, history, anthropology, sociology)
- Science Index (metallurgy, archaeology, materials chemistry and physics).
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.
- There may be reasons for its non-appearance such as the second writer is an academic rival, or the book you are interested in has little or no relevance to the subject of the second book.