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IB History: How To Evaluate A Source

One of the most valued skills in all of IB History is the ability to evaluate one’s sources when making an argument.

Not only is the skill directly quizzed on the exam itself, it’s also the focus of the first section of your Internal Assessment where you’ll be asked to evaluate two of the most valuable sources you used in your research.

Plus, if you’re planning to do your Extended Essay in anything related to history, you’ll be expected to provide proper evaluation of your sources at some point. But what does evaluating your sources actually mean?

On some level, we all know how to evaluate our sources a little bit. We know that, for example, a blog post made by a thirteen year old isn’t necessarily as credible as a scientific study or report done by professionals. And, we probably also know that some sources are more handy in some situations rather than others depending on the context.

For example, while that scientific report may be more accurate, if you’re specifically trying to find what thirteen year olds think about a certain issue, then it might be helpful to hear it directly from a thirteen year old’s blog.

A source is really all that you make of it.

Every source has its strengths and flaws, and identifying those can help make your argument more effective.

For that, we use the OPCVL Method. That means that, with every source, we ask ourselves a question: With respect to the source’s origin, purpose, and content, what are the values and limitations of the source?

Now, that’s a fancy way that we word it to sound professional, but we can break that down into something easier to understand.

The strengths of a source are its values. That’s easy enough, right?

It’s the good parts of the source—the parts that you’re probably using and calling upon to make that argument.

On the other end, the limitations of a source are its blind spots and flaws. Sometimes, sources are bad. They might make leaps in logic, only look at a certain perspective, or just shouldn’t be trusted. That said, bad sources aren’t the only sources with limitations!

There’s no source that can tell us everything, and thus every source has some limit to what we can derive from it. That’s why the limitations of a source don’t just include the source’s flaws but also its blind spots—areas that it couldn’t possibly tell us about.

The actual extent of which you point out either the values or limitations of a source might depend on what argument you’re making.

- If you’re trying to validate the argument a source makes and justify your reason for using it, you’ll probably mostly point out its values.

- If you want to argue against a certain point, it can be particularly powerful to deconstruct and point out the various limitations of a source that the argument relies on.

Presenting only one side of the argument (i.e: all the good parts of your source or all the bad parts of another source) is sometimes called card-stacking, and while it can be a helpful device to making your argument appear stronger and we tend to all do it at least a little bit, the IBO wants you to try and stay away from that as much as possible.

"So, for the most part, try and get in the habit of identifying at least two values and limitations for every source you come across."

"Even if you don’t include it all in your actual writing, it’ll help you practice for what to come."

To identify a value or limitation, we need to look at the various things that make a source a source. Every source has an origin—when it was made, who made it, who was it made for, who published it, where and how it was published, etc.

This can range from talking about the author, to the context a source was written, to the medium the source is in (we don’t use diary entries in the same way that we use official government documents, for example!)

In addition to that, every source is made with a particular purpose;
+ Was the source made just to educate?
+ Was it part of a propaganda movement?
+ Do they want you to buy something, or think a particular way of a particular side?

Finally, each source, of course, has the actual content of the source.
+ What does the source actually say, and what does it cover?
+ What are the arguments of the source?

With these three parts, it becomes easier to segment and acknowledge where the actual values and limitations of a source lie.

Take the source’s origin, for example. You may have heard the terms “primary source” and “secondary source” before.

1) Primary sources are sources made and written by those at a particular event; for example, a diary entry from a child in the midst of an economic recession, or a government document that recorded certain actions that the government took at a time.

2) Secondary sources are sources that come after an event, like textbooks and scholarly articles. Neither type of source is objectively better than the other, but each has certain values and limitations that the other does not have.


A primary source may have the benefit of having actually experienced the event and giving a personal account of it (something that a secondary source inherently lacks), but it might miss out on the multiple perspectives and hindsight that a secondary source can have!

The specific medium a form is in may play a role in how we view it, too. Political cartoons can tell us the perspective of the public, but aren’t the best insight as to how the government thinks of things.

A source’s origin is also prime for evaluation because of how evident our biases can be. Bias has become a sorta loaded term, but in reality it is not enough evaluation to simply say that a source has a bias. We all have implicit biases!

What matters is what those biases are, so point them out! If a source is saying some really rude things about poor people, and then you look at the author and it was made by a rich person, then you’ve found a good talking point for OPCVL!

Purpose often goes hand in hand with origin, but it’s important to distinguish it.
Was the source made to convince the public on a political issue?
Or was it a commercial, made to sell as many products as possible?

A commercial might be limiting if we wanted to find only the facts of a product, but if we want to find how a company presents itself to the public it might be incredibly valuable!

Content can either be the easiest part of OPCVL or the hardest. Sometimes, there’s really low-hanging fruit:

“The content is of value to the historian because it covers the entirety of the war, the content is of limited use to the historian because it does not cover these certain years of the war, etc.”

Sometimes, you might have to actively dig through the argument and find the strengths and weaknesses of the logic used and the message made.

The best advice here is to think of the general stuff, then hone in! What’s your reaction to the source? If something sounds weird or illogical, maybe point it out! No historian is infallible, so it might be a great criticism.

Present your evaluation using something similar to this sentence frame:

“The {origin, purpose, or content } is {of value/of limited value} to the historian because...”

“The is to the historian because...” This shows IB examiners that you are clearly identifying and evaluating your sources and can help make sure that you don’t miss any points. Really, like with all things in life, the best way to improve your evaluating skills is to practice over and over.

Get into debates online, and evaluate your sources and your partner’s sources! Read articles, and try to find the biases that might be worth criticizing and mentioning.

Think actively about what you’re consuming and why somebody wants you to see it. It’ll not only help you on your exam and IA but will also help you be more conscious of the media and arguments you take in!

And, if you find yourself needing more help, consider using our service to find a history tutor! Good luck, and break down those sources!

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