Evaluating History Resources Found on the Internet
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6. Evaluating History Resources
Found on the Internet


One problem in using the Internet to do historical research is that the quality of sources varies tremendously. Unlike books and journals, which go through a filtering process (e.g. editing, peer review), information on the Internet is mostly unfiltered. Using and citing information found on the Internet is a little like swimming on the beach without a lifeguard. How can you tell whether or not an Internet resource is appropriate for a research project? A researcher should evaluate Internet pages to make sure that they are appropriate information sources for a particular assignment.

As with print materials, when evaluating Internet resources you should ask questions, using five evaluative criteria: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage.


How reliable and free from error is the information? Be aware that anyone can publish on the Internet. Resources in that medium are not usually verified by editors or fact checkers. The Internet, by its nature, imposes no standards to ensure accuracy, as is the case with some other media.


Who is the author or developer of the material? Sometimes it is difficult to determine authorship of Internet sources. Even if the author's name is included, there is often no indication of that person's qualifications. Who is the publisher or producer of the site? Unfortunately, sites do not always indicate publisher responsibility. Sites developed by a university, college, library, or other scholarly organization carry more authority than one whose author is an amateur enthusiast with a personal home page on the Internet. Also, look for evidence of how the information in the site is documented. Are there footnotes and/or a bibliography? Often this is not the case. If there is such documentation, what is the quality of the sources revealed?


Is the site's information presented with a minimum of bias, or is there an attempt to sway the opinion of the audience? If the producer is commercial, do business concerns affect presentation of the information? If the producer is an organization with an ideological agenda, is that agenda reflected in the treatment of the historical material? Producers of Internet materials do not always clearly state their goals or aims. The Internet sometimes functions as a "virtual soapbox."


Is the content of the work up-to-date? Is the publication date clearly labeled? Regrettably, dates are not always included on Internet pages. Even when there are, it is not always clear whether they refer to when the information was written, when it was placed on the Internet, or when it was last revised.


What topics are included in the work? Are these topics explored in depth? Note that Internet pages can begin with one topic but link to other unrelated topics. Even when the topics are related, the linked material may be inferior in quality to the site to which it is linked. It is sometimes difficult to determine the extent of coverage of topics in Internet sites.


Remember that the Internet is only one source of historical information. It can be useful for researching certain topics but almost useless for others. To research a topic thoroughly, use a variety of sources, including traditional library hard-copy materials. Apply the evaluation criteria mentioned above for all resources.

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For more on this subject, see Critical Approaches to the Web -- Part I: Evaluation, by Jack Solack. It includes links to other similar sites.

(Adapted by this project's developer, Roger Griffin, and by Teresa Ashley, Reference Librarian, Northridge Campus Learning Resource Center, Austin Community College, from The Web as a Research Tool: Evaluation Techniques, by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, Reference Librarians, Wolfgram Memorial Library, Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania.)

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