Source Analysis: Thinking Like Historians Online and in the Library

When I first decided to write a post about media literacy and my classroom practice, I was worried “fake news” essays had already reached saturation since the term became ubiquitous after the 2016 election. I even checked to see if it was the Oxford Word of the Year for 2016. I was close. It’s “post-truth.” Though the ways in which certain political figures employ the term may not be wholly accurate, its use has nonetheless opened many people’s eyes to the need for media literacy. For history teachers especially, asking students to think like historians means critical source analysis should be an integral part of the curriculum.

It’s easy to fall into the old teacher trap of instructing students to use “reliable” sources without spending time on how they do that. As a classroom teacher, I initially thought about the rules I wanted students to follow. One thing I did was limit the number of web-based materials they could use in their research papers. The effortlessness of clicking on the first Google results is sometimes too tempting for students to resist. Anyone else get a bibliography with “Google.com” listed as a source? (I told students it was similar to listing “Library” instead of the author and title of a book.) There are merits in setting these kinds of parameters—emphasizing books and journal articles is something students need to think about when writing academically—but it’s not necessarily teaching them how to be media literate.

History classes bear much responsibility in fostering media literacy, as these skills are embedded within historical study. Though students understand that people today hold biases – and that people of the past held different views/values – when accumulating materials, they often use sources indiscriminately. On more than one occasion, my students cited U. B. Phillips unquestioningly in their research on slavery. Students can use sources such as Phillips’ work, but not without knowing what it is they are using. It must be appropriately situated in the historiography. They should consider his argument, the context within which it was written, and subsequent criticisms.

If we are teaching students to think like historians, then we need to spend a considerable amount of time teaching them how to evaluate the utility of sources towards creating an argument. Instead of telling them what sources they can and cannot use, students need a framework to engage in critical source analysis. Then, they can determine a source’s use.

When I taught for an International Baccalaureate school, we performed OPVL analyses: origin, purpose, value, and limitation. Students consider who wrote the source, their credentials, and for what purpose they are writing it.  For many sources, the purpose will also include the source’s argument. Then, they evaluate its value and limitations for researchers based on the origin and purpose. They apply this framework to all of their source analyses, primary and secondary sources alike.

When we discuss research, online or otherwise, these components should be at the forefront of their minds.  First and foremost, they must determine who wrote the material. Is it a Harvard professor? Is it an unemployed, high school dropout writing in his mother’s basement? Both individuals could easily create a website. For every source they used, there needed to be an accompanying OPVL analysis. Assessing sources in this way helps students determine credibility, but also to refine their abilities to see the larger historiographical processes.  If they can determine that sources are not infallible, even ones written by respected historians, then historical study becomes a process reflective of the discipline, not a regurgitation of content.

Students might get frustrated with this process, particularly if they are not used to source analysis being required. Getting students to push through those frustrations is important. Sometimes they can’t find the author of the source, or if they can, they can’t seem to find any credentials.  How do they assess if the source is reliable or not? The same way scholars do – the context and the content. (For example, an article without an author from the Smithsonian has more credibility than one from a random website.)

On more than one occasion however, students made some interesting discoveries.  A student once burst into my room and excitedly recounted one of her discoveries – a source that had initially seemed to provide valuable information about the Great Depression ended up being authored by a Nazi.  Another student discovered his source was written by a Russian spy. These discoveries can be eye-opening and may even energize students. But, no matter how mundane the source, students should think carefully about each one before using. We even looked up the CV’s of their textbook’s authors!

To further reinforce this process, when presenting students with a quote – from a scholar, journalist, historical figure, whoever – I prompted them to ask me who the person is. I would either have their biography pulled up or we would look it up together.  Does lacking a twenty-page CV mean someone’s work isn’t reliable? No, but the pervasiveness of false information requires we teach students to ask these questions of everyone. Historians do not treat all sources as equal, neither should they.

When it comes to websites, this process can be tricky, but particularly important for students to use a discerning eye. We can’t determine the value of a source until we know where it came from. Sometimes that means we need to follow the breadcrumbs back in time.  One interesting way to research online sources is to time travel.  Students can use the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/web/.  This site catalogs changes made to websites since their appearance on the web.  Sometimes there are interesting updates or information removed.

If students are having trouble finding out information about a website (already a giant red flag, but we need to show them this, rather than just say it), have students use the web site https://www.whois.com/whois/ to find who registered the domain.  Students can even Google map the registrant’s street address. When I first constructed this activity, students discovered that the “Hitler Museum” was registered to an address in San Francisco, which appeared to be over a Chinese restaurant. Now, the museum has relocated to a home in Las Vegas. Does this mean the site’s information is inaccurate? Not necessarily. But this exercise made them question the credibility of the “museum” much more so than they had before.

In the past, I have given students a list of websites that all had seemingly innocuous addresses. This included martinlutherking.org. To many students, the web address would seem legitimate enough to warrant its use. If you look around the site enough, or use the two resources above, you’ll find that the website is run by Storm Front, a white nationalist group. Not all sites are this easy to identify as propagating false information. But this, and other examples, can open students’ eyes to the importance of source analysis.

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