It’s time to go over something so important, so essential to research, that colleges should teach entire courses on it: how to tell good sources from bad ones.
Now, a “source” is not merely some dry technical thing that only interests college professors and newspaper writers. Sources of information are a part of daily life. When you look up a recipe in a book, that book is a source. When you go on a website to see what time a store closes, that site is your source. When you ask someone where your sunglasses are and they reply “On your head, stupid,” that person is a source.
Bad sources are everywhere, and it’s so easy to be taken in by them that even news stations can be fooled (as Cracked.com constantly points out). And of course we’ve all seen how crazy stories circulate on the Internet, spreading worry in their wake like paranoid tornadoes. How many of you have gotten an e-mail forward from your grandma insisting that you should always check under your car in case a crazed murderer is lying there, waiting to awkwardly crawl his way out and attack you? How many of you have seen a story on Facebook declaring that fast food meat is soaked in vats of ammonia?
With that in mind it’s easy to see that we should be extra careful when reading about the lives of people who died decades ago. Anything can be written about subjects who aren’t around to defend themselves, and rumors are easily passed off as fact. Look at how many people still think that Clara Bow, err, “partied” with an entire football team, for example.
So let‘s say you want to do research on the silent era. How do you learn to tell good sources from bad ones? Where do you begin?
1. Get recommendations.
Probably the best way to get started on the right track is to dig a little and see if other people recommend the books, articles, documentaries, and other sources of information that you‘re thinking about picking up.
Let’s say you’re interested in Rudolph Valentino (hee hee) and want to read some books about him. Rather than just picking up the first book you see with his face on it, take a look online and find out which books have better reviews. Asking for recommendations on message boards and social media groups is also helpful–many fans are happy to share their knowledge with curious newbies. Then, make your informed decision about which books are the best to buy.
2. Check your sources.
Yup, this definitely means to research your research–and you‘ll be glad you did it. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. If you’re looking for recommendations then you’re already learning to distinguish between the good sources and the terrible ones.
Let’s say you’ve picked up a couple books about Rudy at a used book store (a great place to look). One is a slim paperback you hadn‘t heard of before. Where‘s the bibliography? Is it listed in the back? Are there footnotes at least? Wait, it doesn‘t have any of that and it‘s published by Three Wolf Moon Media, which also publishes books with titles like “Sensational Starlets: Their Filthy Secret Lives”? Well, scratch that book off your list. How can you ever trust it?
The other book is one that has many good reviews. And not only that, but it’s by an author well-known for writing good biographies, it has lots of sources listed in the back, footnotes (how fancy!), Rudy’s favorite meatball recipe, and you’ve even had it recommended to you several times. By all means, read it. And when you are done, go back to that used book store and find some more good Rudy books! Because you should…
3. Read and watch as much as you can.
Articles, documentaries, biographies, interviews, magazines, e-zines, blog posts, message board posts, bumper stickers, graffiti scrawled on walls, YouTube comments–devour as much as you can! If it’s a subject you really love and are dying to know more about, it’s not going to be a chore–it’ll be exciting as you uncover more and more fun stories and offbeat facts.
You’ll also start recognizing things. Some books and articles will pop up in discussions often–either to be praised for being excellent or scorned for being crap. You’ll start remembering where a certain anecdote came from or where you saw a certain photo for the first time. You will find yourself agreeing with people that yes, that one Rudy bio was so awesome that you want to eat it, and correcting someone who wrote down the wrong ingredients for Rudy’s famous meatball recipe. This is all because you are slowly, but surely, becoming savvy about your sources.
4. Don’t be afraid to question anything that seems controversial.
The more savvy you become, the easier it’s going to be to recognize what “facts” are mistakes, exaggerations, or even just plain old speculation. You will start to read things more carefully, to try and figure out how different stories add up, and most importantly, to use your common sense. Common sense is key. You’ll start to get skeptical of any writing that seems needlessly judgmental or melodramatic. And soon you will experience that glorious point where you start to ask questions yourself–not “just because,” but because you have a whole wealth of strong source material behind you to help back you up.
Let’s say that one day you stumble across a rare photo of a copy of Rudy’s meatball recipe, handwritten by Rudy himself to give to Mary Pickford or something (she had wanted that recipe for months). After reading so much about the virtues of Rudy’s meatballs, at last you get a chance to see the original recipe for yourself.
But wait! As you scrutinize the picture of the faded, timeworn paper closely, your eye catches it–clearly written by the magnificent hand of Rudy himself, it says “one Teaspoon of Oregano“–not one tablespoon of oregano, as that one fabulous biography had always said. You are surprised to realize that hey, even the best biographies aren’t always 100% perfect.
And now you are now well on your way to being a sharp-eyed, well-read, well-informed, smart and savvy researcher.