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Points of View

Module Overview

While primary sources serve as evidence of contemporaneous topics, communities, times, and people, it is important to evaluate them for their context instead of treating them as absolute truths. Primary sources are created by people, and are thus subject to all of the biases, perspectives, and subjectivity of their creators. This 2-part module will help you evaluate the authority of primary sources, which will affect how these materials inform your research and findings.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • Understand how primary sources can have different types of authority (such as subject expertise versus direct experience in an event)
  • Contextualize a primary source within the time or culture it was created it, and examine the effects on its production and content
  • Evaluate primary sources for the perspective of their creator, including their biases, subjectivities, and types of authority
What's needed


Approximately 30 minutes per part, 60 minutes total


Internet access
Microsoft Excel

Part I: Perspective

A primary source is a source that was created at the time under study, that serves as original evidence documenting that time period, a topic, or people. This differs from a secondary source, which is a source that synthesizes or comments on primary sources, like a scholarly article (“Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy”).

Some types of materials can serve as both primary and secondary sources, depending on their context and your research question. For example, a magazine article about the 2016 election is likely considered a secondary source, unless your research topic is media coverage of the election, in which case the article would be considered a primary source.

While primary sources can be used as evidence of their times, it is important to evaluate how they were influenced by their creators. Primary sources are created by people, who bring all of their cultural understandings, biases, blind spots, opinions, and motivations to creating the source. When evaluating a primary source, it is important to try to understand how the primary source was created, and in turn, what perspectives it is imbued with by virtue of its creator.

There are a few questions you should ask yourself when examining a primary source, including:

  • Why was this created?
  • Was there an intended audience?
  • Is the creator neutral toward the subject(s) described in the primary source?
  • When was this created, and where? What social groups and/or attitudes of that era did the creator subscribe to?
  • Are we seeing the original version of this source, or has it been edited, influenced, or censored by an outside party?

You likely will not have enough information to answer all of these questions, but they are good starting points for interrogating a primary source for its perspective and biases.

For example, it may be tempting to accept a newspaper article as fact given that it was created by a journalist with professional standards. But journalistic ethics have evolved and continue to do so; it is important to consider the editorial policies of the news source, the culture of journalism of that time, if the newspaper was part of a larger conglomerate that may have censored or encouraged certain reporting, if there was any government influence or censorship, and if the pervading culture of the time—including racist, sexist, or homophobic attitudes, for example—influenced what was covered, and how.

Let's try it!
Complete "Part I" of the worksheet.

Part II: Authority

Understanding the perspective of a primary source helps us understand how authoritative the source is. Within the context of primary sources, authority refers to the credibility and expertise the source offers (“Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy”). Primary sources can have different types of authority, including: 

  • SUBJECT EXPERTISE, such as scholarship or professional experience within a domain
  • SOCIETAL POSITION, such as public office or membership in a certain community
  • SPECIAL EXPERIENCE, such as participating in a historic event

Source: Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

These different types of authority are all valuable as they can support different arguments within your research. 

Consider the three primary sources listed below that you might find relating to a war: a wartime diary, a recording of a presidential radio broadcast, and wartime photography. What types of authority could they convey? For what arguments could you use them within your research?

Consider your answer, and then flip the below cards.

Clip art of an open book

Special Experience

A wartime diary is authoritative in that it relays firsthand experience in an event, and could support arguments about the affective effects of war.

Clip art of a radio microphone and airwaves

Societal Position

A recording of a presidential radio broadcast from that time is an authoritative political source from the government, serving as evidence of government objectives.

Clip art image of a camera

Subject Expertise and/or Special Experience

Wartime photography could show subject expertise or special expertise, depending on the photographer's background and involvement with the war.

While it is important to evaluate authority, it is just as important to continue to consider perspective. What realities did the war photographer not photograph? What personal biases are expressed in the diary entry? What was the radio broadcast intended to achieve? Answering these questions will only strengthen your understanding of the authoratative weight of the resource.

Let's try it!
 Complete "Part II" of the worksheet.

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Exploration & Inquiry was created as part of the Digital Resource Development Initiative, sponsored by UCLA Department of Information Studies
Photographs are from the Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License