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Archival Research: Evaluating Documents

Listings of digital archives.

Evaluating your Sources

When doing research it is important to evaluate and question every source you use. It is also essential to understand that information is created for a purpose and that it is intertwined with other information. 

Evaluating Primary Sources

How to Read a Document

When doing research, it is important to evaluate the resources you have collected and understand what they are trying to say. 

What are documents:

  • Documents are information or data fixed in some media.

  • Documents can be of any media and formats: paper texts, photographs, audio recordings, video recordings, databases, spreadsheets, geographical information systems, and web pages.

  • Documents have content, context, and structure.

  • Documents convey information.

Discovering a document is like finding clues in an investigation. Oftentimes, not just one document (clue) tells the story, but many of them pieced together can.

Evaluate the document by asking questions of it and using your knowledge and detective skills. Concepts to keep in mind: Intention, Interpretation, Presumption, and Truth, Belief, and Justification.


  • Who created the document? What was their roll? What does the document tell you about the creator? Be able to explain this reasoning.
  • Why was it created? What is the purpose of it?
  • What did the creator have to gain from the document? Explain why you think that.
  • Does it show the author's viewpoint? Explain what it is.


  • Who is the intended audience? Why do you think this?
  • What is the document trying to accomplish?
  • What is unclear about the document?
  • Is the creator of the document credible?


  • How do the ideas and values of the document differ from today's ideas and values?
  • How your preconceptions relate to the document?
  • Do your preconceptions interfere with understanding the document?

Truth, Belief, and Justification

  • Does the document support/not support the information found in other sources?
  • What does the document tell you without knowing it is telling you
  • What facts can be learned from the document
  • What do you learn from the creator's point of view?

Adapted from: Patrick Rael, Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students (Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 2004)

Questions to Ask About Documents

1. What kind of document is it?

2. What do you see? What is your first impression of the document?

3. Who created it?

4. When was it created?

5. Where was it created?

6. What is its main topic? 

7. Why was it created?

8. What is the context of the document?  What was happening at the time the document was created?

9. What questions do you have after evaluating the document?

10.  What other documents or evidence will help you understand the topic or event?

Adapted from: National Archives, Document Analysis Worksheets (

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