When students are engaging with historical sources, they often get confused about what the terms ‘usefulness’ and ‘reliability’ mean. This confusion stems from the fact that these words are often found next to each other on exam questions or in marking guides.
Students tend to struggle with these terms since usefulness and reliability are both considered to be ‘evaluation’ skills. Evaluation requires a student to come to a decision about the value of a particular source, and usefulness and reliability are just two separate ways of doing this.
However, these two skills require students to form two different kinds of judgments about historical sources. It is important to know how to successfully demonstrate each one.
I hope that this blog post will provide clear explanations about the key differences to solve the confusion once and for all.
To help you as quickly as possible, I will give a short answer first. If you find that you still need more explanation, there will be a longer answer after it.
The short answer
Ideally, every historical source is both useful and reliable. In other words, you want sources that provide information that is helpful to the topic you’re studying and has been written by an author who is trustworthy.
That is the short answer. If you need it, here is an extended explanation.
The long answer
Usefulness is a judgement about how relevant or helpful a particular source is in providing information about your topic.
The measure of a source's usefulness is based upon the question being asked of it. If a source provides any information about the specific topic you're investigating, it is considered to be a useful source.
If an exam question asks "How useful is the source in understanding the outcome of the battle?", and the source states that "Britain won the battle", we can conclude that "the source is useful in understanding the outcome of the battle because it explicitly states that "Britain won the battle"".
Since a source's usefulness is based primarily upon its ability to provide valuable information on your topic, there are four different ways to prove that a source is useful:
In comparison, reliability of sources evaluates whether they are trustworthy. Instead of using information from the source, a judgment of reliability is primarily based upon what you know about the creator of a source, which can be found during your analysis of the source.
Most of the time, you can successfully argue that a source is reliable if it is was created by someone who is most likely to have knowledge or expertise about a topic that most people do not have.
If the author of a source was directly involved in a historical event or knew a famous individual personally, such a person would probably be a trustworthy source of information. In a similar way, an author who is a university professor, who has been studying a particular historical topic for decades will have expert insight that most people do not have and would be considered a highly trustworthy source.
Both useful and reliable?
It is possible that a source can be useful, but not reliable.
Many articles on the History.com website provide a lot of helpful information on a wide variety of historical topics, which would prove that this website would be considered useful. However, the articles on the site are not written by professional historians, which means that the website is not very reliable.
Similarly, it is also possible that a source can be very reliable, but not particularly useful.
An academic article on the latest research in quantum physics from a university professor would be very reliable, as it is created by an expert in the field, but it isn’t very useful in studying the past because it does not contain any information on a historical topic.
For more information, check out the following resources: