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Primary Sources and Research Part III: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.

We have explored using primary source items to develop research questions, and to strengthen analysis through sourcing and contextualizing.  Next, we explore the value of using primary sources from the Library of Congress to guide students to evaluate sources and use evidence.

Historians often use the materials of history, such as photographs, documents, and personal narratives, in a dialogue with each other, comparing multiple sources to corroborate where the sources agree and disagree with each other, to identify productive discrepancies, and to construct a theory about how and why events played out as they did.

As students move through the inquiry process, they can identify a variety of primary sources to construct knowledge about the women’s suffrage movement. These resources prompt questions, lead to answers, and bring students back to more questions. Details from the items enable students to make inferences about their source and context as well as supporting claims and conclusions. To prepare to draw conclusions about the topic, students can evaluate the relevance and validity of the sources while also extracting pertinent supportive information.

Alice Paul Describes Force Feeding
Alice Paul Describes Force Feeding, 1909

Nora Blatch De Forest to Anne Fitzhugh Miller
Nora Blatch De Forest to Anne Fitzhugh Miller, 1910

This article and letter invite students to look closely for specific methods used by the suffrage movement. While these documents might seem to provide straightforward evidence, students still should consider the circumstances of each document’s creation and what biases need to be considered when using them in an inquiry project. By continuing to add to the layers of evidence, students build a solid foundation to construct an argument to answer questions. Information from these may send students back to items they have seen previously or to new items for corroboration and additional depth.

Tulsa daily world., November 03, 1918, Club News and Personals, Page 9, Image 31
Tulsa daily world., November 03, 1918, Club News and Personals, Page 9, Image 31

When considering where to search for information to fill gaps and deepen understanding, a number of questions can guide students to look for specific types of items:

  • What do I still need to know about the event or time to supplement what I already know?
  • What additional perspectives are needed to ensure I have considered both (or several) sides of the story?
  •  How can I corroborate the factual information provided by this item?
  • Should I look for other types of items, such as newspapers, photographs, journals, letters, and others?

Acquiring another layer of corroborative evidence from additional types of primary sources that express varying viewpoints can only strengthen students’ thinking. Studying items from anti-suffrage perspectives is one alternative source of information to create a balanced foundation of knowledge and facilitate cross-referencing perspectives and methodologies. This page from a Tulsa, Oklahoma, newspaper presents a point of view that contradicts some arguments of suffragists.  Students may want to source and contextualize before asking how the item deepens their understanding of the obstacles and anti-suffrage methodologies suffragists faced.

National Anti-Suffrage Association
National Anti-Suffrage Association

Present the National Anti-Suffrage Association photograph as a companion to the news item. Questions to help students evaluate the information might include:

  • How is the photograph corroborative?  What makes you say that?
  • What new information does it present?
  • How do the photograph and news item add to knowledge about the women’s suffrage movement?

If you’ve tried any of these research strategies with your students, let us know in the comments how they worked.

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