Is it a Good Source, or a Bad Source?

by Master Tyggvi Grabardr Olsen and Mistress Agnese Canigiano

University of Loch Salann / Lecture Series / Session 1, 10/30/1995

What are you looking for?
  • A picture source – Gives historically accurate visual sources for costume, armor, furniture…material culture.
  • A how-to source – Gives step-by-step instructions on how to make or do a thing. May be written in the historical period, or in the modern age.
  • An historical overview – Gives you basic grounding in an historical period; i.e. The Timeline of History.
  • An in-depth social or political history – Explores a small period of time or geographical area, or social segment. Examples are – A Distant Mirror (for the 100 years war) and Women, Work, and Patriarchy (for the place of women in the textile industry in 15th century Flandders and Germany)
  • An archaelogical source – Gives in-depth information about an archaelogical site and its findings. AN example is Buried Norsemen in Greenland.
How detailed or complex do you want it to be?
  • Coffee table picture books
  • Day-at-glance of Century-at-a-glace
  • Scholarly analysis of a subject or broad overview
  • Basic how-to for beginners or complex tips for experts
First Things to Check For:
  • Date of publication – For historical information, the more recent the better. The source will hopefully be based on the most current research.
  • Publisher – Is the source published by a reputable publisher, with a track record in the area of interest. University publishers are usually good sources for scholarly publications. Interweave Press is a good source for fiber arts how-to books. Time-Life has an uneven history. Horizon Books often comes out with very useful picture books, as does Facts-on-File.
  • Author’s creditials – What is the background of the author? How much experience does s/he have with this area? Was the book written as a Master’s or Doctoral Thesis? Is any bias towards or against the subject suspected due to her/his background?
  • Organization – Does the source have (if applicable) bibliography, glossary, index, table of contents?
Review the text:
  • Organization – Can you find what you need easily? Is the text organized into logical paragraphs, sections and/or chapters?
  • Style – Read a few sections. Do the words “always” and “never” appear frequently? Hope for phrases like “current research suggests” or “we do not know”
  • Bias – Ia a bias apparent in the author’s work? For example Kenneth Clark dismisses all culture not based on Greco-Roman civilization as barbarian. obviously, anything he might write on say, Celtic or Norse culture would be suspect. Beware a blatant feminist or misogynist views as they do not present balanced views.
  • Citations – Is the work footnoted? Always check the author’s sources, to see how they have interpreted or misinterpreted them.
Review the illustrations
  • Clarity – In a how-to source, are they clear and easy to understand, whether they are photos or line drawings? In a historical source, how many detail form the original object is lost? For a how-to source, photos are definitely preferable to line drawings.
  • Reliability – In a historical source, have they been redrawn from someone else’s drawings? What did they leave out or embellish? What is the ratio of photos to line drawings. Look for the high side.
  • Usefulness – How useful are the illustrations? For material culture sources, it is vital to know the size of the object. Do the captions give the dimensions, or is a scale photographed with the item? Does the caption give the current location (museum) of the object? Are photo credits given?
One stop shopping.

Rarely will a source provide you with all the answers to your questions. Evaluate all that a source has to offer. Do not discard a source as useless because either the text or the illustrations do not pass muster. Depending on your project, you may not need much of the text, or may not be interested in the illustrations. Use what is useful and credible and discard the rest. Do look for sources that give you the most bang for you research buck.

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