How to evaluate the usefulness of a source

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As an evaluation skill, usefulness is one way that you can prove that a source is valuable. Usefulness is the easiest of the evaluation skills to use and should be relied upon if you cannot say anything else when evaluating the source.

What is 'usefulness'?


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. 

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:


How do I prove usefulness?


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:

  1. It provides explicit information about the topic. You can best show this by providing a direct quote from the source
  2. It provides implicit information about the topic. You can best show this by providing an indirect quote from the source
  3. It corroborates information from another source. You can show this by providing quotes from both sources
  4. It contradicts information from another source. You can best show this by providing quotes from both sources

How do I write an evaluation of usefulness?


In order to write a successful evaluation of a source's usefulness, you need three elements:

  1. A judgment about whether it is or is not useful
  2. The topic about which its usefulness is being considered
  3. Evidence from the source to justify your response, either as a direct or indirect quote

 

Example evaluation of usefulness:

 The academic article by American Egyptologist, Jones, is particularly useful in understanding how Egyptian temple inscriptions were used as political propaganda because he states that  “the extensive military conquests adorning the inner walls were meant to impress visitors with the pharaoh’s power and influence” (Jones, 1984, 45).

Colour key:
 Judgment Topic Evidence

Examples


Pliny’s account is very useful in understanding public entertainment in Roman society and Roman attitudes towards gladiators since he states that he "visited the games many times" during his life (Agricola, VI.4).

 

The photograph is extremely useful in understanding the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 because it clearly shows the destructive effects of the blast just weeks after the event.

 

Source A is very useful in understanding the experiences of Australian troops at Gallipoli because it is a letter was written by John Smith, an Australian soldier, which describes his personal experience of the Gallipoli landing on the 25th April 1915. Specifically, it explains how he and his fellow soldiers were overcome by fear and confusion due to a lack of communication from their officers. This is evident when he says in the letter that “I forgot all of my training and I began running like hell for safety”. Therefore, Source A provides first-hand account of the Gallipoli landings and is extremely useful in understanding the experiences of Australian troops during the event.

 

The plaster casts of the people who died at Pompeii in AD 79 shown in Sources G are extremely useful in the study of Pompeii. Even though the casts themselves were made during the mid-nineteenth century Italian archaeologist Fiorelli, they provide a rare insight into the position of the bodies at the time of death. However, both Smith, and Lazer provide an important explanation that there are problems in fully understanding the context of the individual casts. They both point out that the plaster casts and other skeletal remains have been frequently moved from their place of discovery. Smith highlights that due to “mobility of both casts and human skeletal remains”, it has lead to “mythologising” about individual people from the past (Source H). In a similar way, Lazer says that “many skeletons have been destroyed or removed from the site”, which makes accurate interpretations of the finds difficult (Source I). As a result, both the physical remains from Pompeii and the academic explanations provided in Sources G, H and I are very relevant to the study of ancient Pompeii. 


Sophisticated evaluation: values and limitations


As you become more comfortable with evaluating the usefulness of sources, you will notice that all sources have limitations, even if they are mostly useful.

 

To achieve your best marks in evaluating usefulness, you need to demonstrate a sophisticated evaluation of historical sources by providing both reasons FOR a source's relevance, and also some reasons AGAINST it.

 

These are sometimes called the 'values' and 'limitations' of a source.

 

A source's usefulness can often be limited based upon what information it doesn't provide. This can be explained by identifying what information has been left out by the author, or by what opinions or perspectives are not mentioned by the source.  

 

Please remember that even though you are providing positives and negatives about the usefulness of a source, you still need to come to a judgment about how helpful it is, despite its values and limitations.

Examples

Each of the examples below demonstrate sophisticated evaluation of usefulness by identifying some values and limitations of sources, while still drawing a clear judgment about its usefulness.

 

Demonstrating a sophisticated evaluation of useful in your writing:

 

Plutarch provides the only detailed account of Caesar's childhood, which makes it a particularly valuable historical source. However, it intentionally omits any mention of the cruelty he demonstrated to his slaves, which is mentioned by other sources. Therefore, while it is a useful source for understanding the early life of Julius Caesar, it is limited by its obvious lack of key negative events from this period.

 

While Miller provides an analysis of the social classes of late Tokugawa Japanese society, he relies primarily on European descriptions of these groups, rather than incorporating Japanese authors. As a result, Miller is a useful source of information about European opinions of Japanese society, he is ultimately not very helpful in understanding Japanese perspectives of it. 


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Additional Resources


What is the difference between usefulness and reliability?

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