Hello once again, gentle readers! It’s your friendly neighborhood Medievalist and former Classical/Near Eastern Studies-ist Sarduríur Freydís Sverresdatter, here with some tips regarding proper sources, academic discernment, and citation. Now in a super-informal colloquial format! Huzzah!
Historical research is a major part of many Polytheist communities. Whether a Revivalist or Reconstructionist, to a lesser or greater degree, we all turn to the written word of History at one point or another. History is the backbone of all we know and understand about ourselves as literate, self-aware creatures. However, many Polytheists have not had formal University training in the professional field of History to any extent. Quite a number of Polytheists, both seasoned practitioners and “newbies” alike, feel lost in the stacks — whether they care to admit it or not — and don’t know where or how to begin to sift through the thousands of publications on any given subject.
How do you know when an author, or some stranger on the internet, is painting you as accurate a portrait as humanly possible of the subject you’re trying to investigate? How do you know when someone is spoon-feeding you total bullshit? Worry no more, gentle readers. I’m here to help.
T Y P E S O F H I S T O R I C A L S O U R C E S
In order to understand how to evaluate a source, we must first be able to differentiate between types of sources. There are two types of historical sources: primary sources, and secondary sources.
A primary source is a document recorded by an individual contemporary to the time period in question (meaning, all concerned parties were alive and mentally competent during the time period/event in question), and/or has borne witness first-hand to the event(s) in question. Ahmad Ibn Fadlān and his accounts of the Viking Rus, for instance, are a primary source. He was a contemporary of the Viking Rus, and was an eyewitness to the events and cultural expressions he chronicled during the 10th century CE.
Similarly, a Modern Political Scientist recording and commenting on current events is to be considered a primary source for our particular time period.
A secondary source is a document recorded by an individual not present during the same time period as the events or personages being written about. The 13th century Icelandic Christian chronicler Snorri Sturluson’s writings are among the more notorious (and worst) secondary sources in all of Medieval History. He was not a contemporary of pre-Christian Icelanders, and did not witness any of the events he presumed to chronicle. He was over 100 years removed from the practice of indigenous Icelandic religions, and therefore could not provide an eyewitness account regarding (nor could he be reasonably considered an authority on) pre-Christian Icelandic culture and beliefs.
All records produced by Modern scholars about Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern History are secondary sources. None of us alive today were alive to witness events that occurred before the 20th century CE.
W H A T C O N S T I T U T E S A C R E D I B L E S O U R C E
For some of us — especially those without formal University training in History, though those of us within the professional field are by no means entirely immune — it is often difficult to tell good sources from piss-poor ones. Many of us are taken in by what we like to hear, what agrees with our preconceived, well-established personal biases, rather than what is rational, accurate, and objective.
While not a complete or fool-proof list, here are some things to keep an eye out for when evaluating the quality of an article, book, and/or academic author:
1.) An extensive bibliography (a list of source materials that are used or consulted in the preparation of a work or that are referred to in the text). This is usually located at the very end of a work. A “notes” and “recommended reading” section are also very encouraging signs of a good academic source.
2.) Proper in-text citation, whether in MLA, ALA, Chicago, or Turabian format, with a “works cited” page listed at the end of the work (see above). In-text citation follows any quote or paraphrased statement taken from a source and discussed in one’s own writing. Chicago-style citation is the preferred format among scholars of various disciplines, though MLA is infinitely more convenient in less-formal settings. The vital purpose of citation is to show where one acquired one’s information, in addition to preventing intellectual theft of copyrighted material (which can result in hefty fines and sometimes imprisonment), aka plagiarism.
3.) The author has accreditation in their field of expertise, demonstrating the dedication of years to the study of a particular field/discipline, as well as competency.
4.) The author uses formal, impersonal language. In an academic work, tone is everything. The use of terms such as “one” or “oneself,” for instance, is a sign of personal detachment, of objectivity. The author does not refer to his or her audience as “you,” and typically refrains from bringing him or herself into the discussion using the pronouns “I” and “me.” This is about objective History, not the author’s ego or personal feelings.
5.) The author(s) (as well as any editors and translators involved) use proper grammar. This should be a given, though it is rather apparent that grammar is overlooked and under-appreciated in this day and age.
6.) The work in question was printed and distributed by a reputable publishing company, or published in a scholarly journal. Cornell, Oxford, and Princeton University Press, to name but a few, are not even remotely likely to market unprofessional, anachronistic, “ten-cent” drivel.
7.) The work in question is up-to-date with current scholarship. Check the publishing dates on the copyright page, and cross-reference the content with more recent texts on the subject if possible.
8.) The author can distinguish between primary and secondary sources, and can dissect and analyze them properly and coherently.
9.) The author reports the content of the primary and secondary sources he or she cites, does not make faulty equivocations with irrelevant sources, and does not plaster his or her own personal views of religion, race, current politics, etc., over the interpretation of the source material. Neither does the author misrepresent sources in order to falsely justify personal biases that have no historical basis nor any legitimate bearing on the subject matter.
To use a personal example, I once sat through a member of the Mainstream Heathen community’s rather pathetic attempt to make the unsubstantiated assertion that “our ancestors didn’t believe in divorce or abandoning their families in pursuit of other sexual/romantic partners” (paraphrasing). However, numerous documented examples exist from the Early and Central Medieval Period, as translated and interpreted by Modern scholars, that clearly demonstrate the frequent occurrence of divorce, and its subsequent social acceptance within Medieval Scandinavian societies. The individual in question was seeking to misrepresent History in order to justify and sway others to his personal, Modern Western moral viewpoints. That sort of behaviour is not condoned by Modern Historians who seek to portray History accurately and objectively. If an academic author is by any means or stretch of the imagination trying to persuade his audience to “convert” to a particular moral, political, racial, social, or religious paradigm through their interpretations of History (or rather, anachronisms), especially if he or she asserts her personal biases as correct and historically-attested in the face of well-documented evidence to the contrary, that author is not academic at all. Rather, it is a terrible source that should be promptly ignored and discarded, if not set on fire.
In short, if the author(s) say more about themselves than the subject at hand, don’t cite, don’t list the sources they’ve read, treat secondary sources like primary sources and vice versa, don’t use proper grammar, rely on outdated/disproved scholarship, and/or use their book(s) as a platform from which to project their own personal biases . . . stop reading that book, and do not presume to use it as a credible source for any potential articles, papers, or books.
When evaluating the quality and content of a text, it is imperative that you exercise your critical thinking skills to their fullest extent, and refrain from accepting anything at face value.
F I N D I N G C R E D I B L E A C A D E M I C S O U R C E S
Whatever you do, don’t use a casual Google, Bing, Ask.com, or Yahoo! search to pinpoint reliable sources of information. The odds of finding decent, credible sources that way are not at all in your favor. A search engine is a tool — an oft-abused one — not a source or a database. Many websites that are retrieved in a casual internet search do not cite (at all or properly), and simply plagiarize other websites, parroting the same misinformation over and over and over again. Crystalinks is a prime example of this. Likewise, Wikipedia is not a useable source; many of its listed references, while perhaps not wholly incorrect, often refer the researcher to outdated articles and texts. Many of these articles and texts are misrepresented. The ability of users to alter entries on Wikipedia makes it treacherous, so it is wise for the layman to steer absolutely clear of it.
Using Google Scholar or Google Books to locate potential sources is better at separating the wheat from the chaff, though you’re really on your own by relying upon that method exclusively. Public, community college, and University libraries and their databases are a much safer and more specific bet for the aspiring scholar. Unlike the Google option, you can get rarer texts through inter-library loan that you otherwise cannot purchase — it’s time-consuming, but doesn’t necessarily cost you anything (with the exception of University libraries; it is usually required that people who use those libraries are students at that particular University, though it might still be possible to obtain certain texts from some University libraries through inter-library loan request).
Some unusually generous Universities, like Fordham, maintain publicly accessible online databases that contain a varied assortment of credible primary and secondary sources on various topics across a wide range of topics and historical disciplines available virtually nowhere else. Such online databases are few, and invaluable. For those of you engrossed in Ancient Near Eastern History, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago also has an online catalog of publications, some of which are available as free PDFs, though many are only available through purchase. Perusing the digital catalogs of other Universities may lead to great and unexpected finds.
Furthermore, if you have associates well-versed in a particular subject, and know where and how to contact such persons, do so. An educated, experienced individual who has personally evaluated various texts relevant to their area(s) of expertise can help you decide which texts are worth reading or right for the job, and which ones may hinder research. These individuals can end up saving you a lot of time, and a lot of frustration. Despite popular belief, your elders are (or ought to be) your friends, and it’s okay to ask for assistance. No human was ever born with a diploma; we all must begin somewhere. If you run into someone unnecessarily condescending, don’t let them discourage you; there are plenty of other knowledgeable people in the world who are entirely willing and able to help you.
Additionally, starting or becoming part of an academically-oriented book group, whether online or in-person, can also aid in one’s ongoing search for new, exciting, and better sources. It also does wonders for generating stimulating discussions, and building a sense of community, which we all need. History is for extroverts, too!