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Evaluating Claims: Making Inferences from Historical Texts

Overview

You will learn how to:

  • Integrate information from diverse sources, noting discrepancies between historical texts
  • Understand where a historical text leaves matters uncertain and why.

You will do this by looking at the naming of “The Civil Rights Movement” as presented in multiple sources.

Evaluating Historical Information

Your job as a consumer of historical sources is three-fold.

  1. Find out what happened and why.
  2. Evaluate the source and see how it fits in with other sources.
  3. Develop your own explanation based on these sources.

Historical Explanation- Video Example

Here is an overview of the Civil Rights Movement: “History ​of the Civil Rights Movement” by WatchMojo. Watch from 1:44 to 5:12.

As you watch, get a sense of what happened in the Movement and why. Also, listen closely to the terms and explanations the video uses.

Historical Examination- Video Example

The video provided a sense of what happened, when, and why. It also provided images and audio, both of which are useful. As a historical overview this is pretty good, but not perfect.

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The listing of many events is not the same as a historical analysis where the author explains not only why events occurred but their relationships to each other.

Time to examine additional resources!

Historical Explanation- Dictionary Example

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Historical overviews are found in dictionaries by looking for the term. Dictionaries are seen as reliable sources of information and provide a helpful starting point.

Look up “Civil Rights Movement” on Dictionary.c​om.

Read the two paragraphs of the explanation “Civil Rights Movement.”

Uncertain Information- Example

The “​Civil Rights Movement” on Dictionary.com provides an overview of the “Civil Rights Movement. But it is missing a clear explanation of why the movement was important. This could be for one of several reasons.

Sometimes historical texts omit information or analysis and leave the reader uncertain of what happened and/or why something happened.

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The likely possible reasons for this are:

  1. Unclear writing
  2. Lack of knowledge
  3. Limited space
  4. Author’s choices about what is important
  5. Reader’s lack of comprehension

Resolving Uncertain Information

It is rare that the author is “confused” about what to include in a historical text and leaves matters uncertain.

The mostly likely scenarios for this uncertainty are eyewitness accounts or documents written long after the fact. In these cases, the eyewitness’ perspective at the time of the event limited their perception, or their memory failed after the fact.

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Reading additional informational texts on the same topic will help you assess whether information is missing, if that information is important, and more about the author’s intent.

Additional Historical Explanation- Encyclopedia Example

Here’s an additional informational text, the Encyclopedia Britannica online edition for “Americ​an Civil Rights Movement.” Read the introductory paragraph only.

Differences Between Texts – Example

​Compare the “Civil Rights Movement” defin​ition from Dictionary.com to the Encyclopedia Br​itannica online explanationCommonalities give some sense of what is generally considered important to include in a historical explanation.

Then, listen to the clip below:

Differences can make the reader (you) uncertain about what is important to include in your own research.

If informational texts disagree, look to another source and see if there is a consensus.

Listen to the clip for more on this:

Additional Historical Example – Primary Source

Primary sources can be used for a historical overview. In the case of an interview, this overview is from the perspective of someone looking back.

Examining an individual’s explanation of the Civil Rights Movement will provide an additional source to confirm what is commonly known about the Movement.

As you explore the primary source on the next slide, look to see if there is anything you feel is uncertain about its veracity or importance. These items will be the things about which you will need to learn more.

Example of a Primary Source

Ruby Nell Sales was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked in Alabama during the Civil RIghts Movement in 1965. Her oral history interview was recorded in 2011. In it, Sales reflects on her experiences.

At one point, she discusses the naming of the Movement. Access Ruby Nell Sales’s interview by clicking h​ere; listen to her comments from from 1:05:04 to 1:06:14 to hear how she explains the Civil Rights Movement in general.

Putting it All Together

You have now looked at three historical sources – a dictionary entry, an encyclopedia entry, and a primary source interview – to gain a general overview of the Civil Rights Movement.

They have many things in common, but some differences, too.

At the end of the day you, as the student-historian, will need to put together this information into your own historical analysis.

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Integrating Different Historical Sources

How do you reconcile different historical accounts into one analysis? A graphic organizer will help.

This table compares the sources you have examined to see where they are similar and different. The categories listed below are taken from the texts used in this lesson.

If one source does not include something but the others do, you should find out more and determine if this item is significant and should be included.

Includes Information about: Dictionary     ​ Encyclopedia Interview
Purpose
Dates
Causes
Goals
Participants
Turning Point
Results
Significance
Evidence

Putting it All Together – Example

Your organizer may look like this after three categories are completed:

​Includes information about: ​Dictionary Encyclopedia​ ​Interview
​Purpose ​“to eliminate segregation and gain equal rights” ​“to eliminate racial segregation and discrimination” ​ “for civil rights…[and] for human dignity”
​Dates ​1950’s and 1960’s ​1950’s and 1960’s ​no mention
Causes​
​Goals
​Participants ​ African-Americans and “supporters” ​no mention ​“black people” and “white people”
​Turning Points
​Results
​Significance
​Evidence

Combining Sources

Ultimately, when you look at a variety of sources you will need to combine them into an answer to your research question. The graphic organizer is one way to see what the sources have in common and where they differ. What can you infer from the combination of sources – the dicti​onary, the encyc​lo​pedia, and the interview?

While it is clear that the Civil Rights Movement was the result of organized human activity, not everyone involved saw it, or named it, the same way. There are differing emphases on which events to discuss, as well.

Combining Sources – How To

You should acknowledge the differences between sources when presenting your own summary of a group of texts, and then present your own answer to your question based on the evidence from those texts. This is called an “interpretation” – you are the one explaining how these sources make sense together.

For example, your interpretation might look something like this:

While the overviews of the term “Civil Rights Movement” from Dictionary.com and the Encyclopedia Britannica both present a definition of the Movement as one focused on ending legal segregation in the Southern United States, not everyone agrees. Ruby Sales, a student activist in 1965, believes it should be called the “Southern Freedom Movement” because of the larger goals of social justice the Movement addressed.

Conclusion

You learned how to:

  • Examine a variety of historical documents
  • Understand the reasons that historical texts sometimes are unclear
  • Put sources together.

These skills will be useful as you read current news sources, too!