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Primary Sources

This guide is to help users to identify, locate, and use primary sources in their research.

Visual Materials @ Bobst

Evaluating Visual Materials

Whether using primary or secondary sources, in print or online, an essential step in the research process is evaluating your sources.  Good scholarship requires careful reading and critical analysis of information.

Basic Evaluation Criteria for All Sources

The following questions were adapted from The Information-Literate Historian by Jenny L. Presnell (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007)

Author Authority 

  • Who created the item? 
  • What is his or her affiliation? 
  • What is his or her relationship to the information contained in the source?

Audience and Purpose

  • Who is the intended audience? 
  • Why was the item created?

Accuracy and Completeness

  • Is the evidence reliable? 
  • Are the important points covered? 
  • How does the source compare to other similar sources?

Footnotes and Documentation

Are the author's sources clearly identified with complete citations to allow you to find the original source yourself?

Perspective and Bias

How do the author's bias and perspective inform the arguments and evidence presented?

Additional Evaluation Criteria for Visual Materials

In addition to the basic questions above, ask the following questions, which were adapted from A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 6th ed. by Mary Lynn Rampolla (New York:  Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009).


  • Where was the image first displayed or published?
  • Do the angles, lighting, or cropping suggest a particular bias?

Art Works

  • Is it a single work or part of a larger movement?
  • Where was it first displayed and what was the critical reception?


  • In what type of publication was the cartoon published?
  • When?  What is the historical significance?
  • What is its message?

Visual Materias as Primary Sources

Visual resources include photographs, film, video, paintings, drawings, cartoons, prints, designs, and three-dimensional art such as sculpture and architecture and can be categorized as fine art or documentary record.  Some visual resources are one-of-a-kind, while others are reproduced (like prints or illustrations in books and magazines).

Original Art

Paintings, drawings, watercolors, graphic art, prints, sculpture, and architectural drawings and plans fall under the heading of original art. 

Museums, art galleries, and libraries are readily accessible repositories for art.  If their holdings are not fully on display, catalogs are generally available.

Examples include:


Photographs are highly useful sources for researchers.  Even a poor quality photographs can have value as a unique record. Like other visual resources, photographs can convey information about vanished worlds, demolished buildings, and forgotten customs and ways of life.

Examples may be found online:  

Moving Images

Moving images, both fiction and nonfiction, are useful for research.  There is a rich world of documentary films and newsreels, though some of it has unfortunately been lost forever. Perhaps more than other visual sources, moving images allow you close access to the past.

See the following for examples:


Prints are art works reproduced in multiple copies.  These include graphic art, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists' prints, computer-generated graphics, and book illustrations.

Sources include: