How to evaluate the accuracy of a historical source

Fountain Court Hampton Court Palace
© History Skills

Evaluating the accuracy of historical sources is a critical skill that enables historians, researchers, and students to decide how much they can believe the information offered by a source.


Since all historical sources are written people who have a particular perspective and bias, some of the information provided by them can be manipulated by them.


This is why it is so important to determine how accurate an individual source of information is.

What is historical 'accuracy'?

Accuracy is a source evaluation skill where you are asked to form a judgment about the correctness of the information provided by a source.


Since it is almost impossible to be 100% certain of a source’s accuracy, your answer needs to talk in terms of the ‘degree of potential accuracy’:


For example: Extremely - Very – Somewhat – Rarely – Not very


To assess the accuracy of a source, ask questions like:

  • Is the information corroborated by other reliable sources?

  • Are there clues of bias in the source that may suggest it may be inaccurate?

  • Is the information offered in the source plausible?

How do you determin a source's accuracy?

 The easiest way to argue in favour of a source being accurate is to show that the information provided by the source is corroborated by  a different source. 


However, there are other ways you can also argue that a source is potentially accurate:

  • The creator is writing to an audience who would have been fully aware of the information stated.

  • The source was written with the explicit purpose of recording unbiased information.
  • The information is corroborated by a separate, more reliable source.

What if a source is inaccurate?

Finding out that a source has provided inaccurate information is not a bad thing for your assessment tasks.


It shows a great deal of maturity if you can engage with inaccurate sources.


Being able to talk about why a source is inaccurate can actually earn you more marks, so don't shy away from discussing inaccuracies in sources.

How do I prove inaccuracy?

 The easiest way to argue in favour of a source being inaccurate is to show that the information provided by the source is contradicted by  a different source. 


However, there are other ways you can also argue that a source is potentially inaccurate:

  • The information is contradicted by a separate, more reliable source.

  • There is obvious bias in the source and that it fails to deal fairly with both perspectives on an event or person.

For example

Demonstrating source accuracy in your writing:


Herodotus' account may sound fanciful, but the archaeological findings have proved that he accurately described the weapons and armour of the Persian soldiers. 

Demonstrating source inaccuracy in your writing:


Hitler's claim that Jewish soldiers undermined the German army during the First World War is clearly contradicted by the large number of Jewish combatants that received military awards for bravery during the conflict

Sophisticated evaluation: values and limitations

While evaluating historical sources, it's important to recognize that they can often contain a mix of accurate and inaccurate information.


This can arise from various factors, such as the author's limited knowledge, biases, or the passage of time leading to distortions or misinterpretations.


For instance, a diary entry may provide a firsthand account of an event, offering valuable insights, but it might also reflect the writer's personal prejudices or misunderstandings.


Similarly, a historical text could accurately describe one aspect of a period while misconstruing another.


Therefore, when assessing a source, it's crucial to critically analyze each piece of information within its broader context, cross-referencing with other sources to separate fact from fiction and build a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the past.


And remember, just because a source contains some errors or inaccuracies, it doesn't automatically make it unreliable.


All people make mistakes. It is important that you also evaluate a source's reliability separate to its accuracy.