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Making Bibliographic Sense of Primary Sources: Evaluating Websites with Primary Sources

Evaluating Websites with Primary Sources

You have located an electronic primary source through an online search. It is on the screen in front of you. It might be an image of a page from the beautiful manuscript that a fifteenth century monk spent his life-time producing, or an image of the last newspaper to be type-set by hand in Canada in the 1960s.

We need to keep in mind that the document is presented within a certain context. When a primary document has been digitized and put on a website, someone has selected this document, made an electronic copy, and has placed it on the internet. Why? What was their motivation? Does this document exist alongside other electronic documents? And, most importantly, has this primary document gone through any alterations in the process of digitization?

When we are looking at a primary document in its original form there is a series of questions to be asked about it. These are summed up as: who prepared it; for whom and for what purpose; what can we see in it that links these three questions, and perhaps most important of all, what clues are there to it belonging to a particular period? Try rehearsing those questions in terms of the fifteenth-century monk, his book and the religious authorities for whom he produced it. Your answers will be different again for the twentieth-century newspaper. 

When that document is presented on a website, some significant things have been done to it, and in very recent times. Thus a second level of evaluation is needed if we are to understand the document in its new form. In short we are taking account of the process of digitization and how it has changed the environment in which the document is presented. We need to be critical of how the digitized primary document is presented in its electronic form. Questions we should ask include:

What is the organization's or individual's intent for digitizing and sharing this primary document? What authority do they have to do so?

How did they obtain the electronic version of the document? What process did they use? Would this process jeopardize any of the content within the primary document? Would anything be excluded?

Can you notice anything within the document that might have been missed in the process of digitization? Are there margin notes? Are margins included? Is there evidence of a second page/reverse side? Is it included? 

Look at the other documents that are included in the website. Are there any noticeable gaps in the collection? Why might this be? Can you find the archival information on the digital version? What information does the website provide? What does this tell you about the provider of the digital document?

Can you find the archival information on the digital version? What information does the website provide?

The process of digitization can change, and in some cases lose, a great deal of information when dealing with primary documents. It is important to be critical when assessing such documents for historical analysis.