Evidence is used by historians to come to a balanced judgment on issues that concern them. The use of evidence forms the bedrock of research.
Many questions at exam level will require candidates to demonstrate their knowledge on how to handle evidence. The evidence - known as sources - presented to a candidate on an exam paper will usually be in the form of a photograph, cartoon etc. An examiner will expect the better answers to contain certain terminology which shows that a candidate does not necessarily take evidence for granted. Such terminology would include primary evidence, secondary evidence, reliable and bias.
All candidates need to know what each of these words mean.
Primary evidence is evidence that actually comes from the time being studied in the question. If you were studying the "Titanic", actual evidence that has been brought to the surface and is on display would be primary evidence. The memories of survivors would be primary evidence. Film of the ship leaving harbor would be primary evidence. All of these examples come from the time of the "Titanic". The recent film "Titanic" does not come from the time and even if it was completely accurate in all details, the film would not be primary evidence simply because it did not come from the time of the real "Titanic".
Secondary evidence is the opposite of primary. This is evidence that does not come from the time being studied. The recent film "Titanic" is secondary evidence. Historians frequently produce secondary evidence. The book "Cromwell" by Antonia Fraser has to be a piece of secondary evidence simply because Fraser was not alive at the time of Cromwell. Though she used a vast number of primary sources in her research, the actual finished book would have been secondary evidence.
Which is better - primary or secondary evidence ? Neither. Each has its own value. Using the examples given above, someone who tries to remember something that happened to him/her many years ago, may well have problems remembering accurately all the facts. They might exaggerate certain points, their factual recall might simply be poor etc. If someone cannot fully remember something that affected them, they might be tempted to add things in to their story so that the finished product is complete. But the finished product might also be inaccurate. Therefore, it will have limited use to a historian. However, someone who has spent years researching material for a book, film etc. may well have had the opportunity to go into such detail about their topic, that the finished product is as accurate as can be even if it is secondary evidence.
Historians will use a vast amount of sources - both primary and secondary - during their work. It is important for them to cross-reference all their used sources to get as balanced view as is possible.
If sources/evidence have been cross-referenced, it is safe to conclude within the realms of probability, that the finished product is reliable. If other evidence supports a specific piece of evidence, then that piece of evidence can be called reliable.
Bias is always a problem with regards to the study of evidence. Some sources are blatantly biased as would be clear in any study of Nazi Germany. Bias can be in favor of someone/something or not in favor. The sources from Nazi Germany which target the Jews were clearly not in favor of them and were biased against this group. Sources relating to Hitler were clearly in his favor and showed him in a good light - a privilege not extended to the Jews. Such evidence has to be treated with care and a knowledge of where it came from, what date it was produced and any reasons for it being produced have to be known before concluding whether the source is biased or not.
Even evidence that is clearly biased is of value to an historian. He/she should ask such questions as why it was produced ? Would there be a motive for the production of clearly biased sources ? If so, what was happening in that society, which tolerated the production of such material ?
In an exam scenario, always look for the clues given to you in evidence questions :
who was it written/drawn by and when ?
who took the photo and is there evidence of the photo being changed ?
is there a major time span between the evidence being produced and the issue referred to ?
are you given any dates on the source ?
When studying cartoons, can you find the following :
P = people in the cartoon; can you identify them ?
I = can you identify any items in the cartoon ? Are they of any value to your study ?
C = is there a caption ? Does it give you any help ? Do you understand it ?
T = are there things in the background which help your study ?
U = is the underlying attitude of the artist clear to you ?
R = remember what you have learnt in lessons about the subject referred to in the cartoon
E = exactly what are the people in the cartoon doing ?
When studying evidence ask the following questions
who drew or wrote the source ? When was it produced ?
were they there at the time it was produced ? If not, could a time lapse affect their memory ?
are they clearly on one side and biased ? If so, how do you know this to be the case ?
is the source an official document which states a government's view ? Is it a private diary entry or a letter ?
is it from a memoir or autobiography ? Does the author want you to think about him/her in a specific manner ?
is it from a newspaper ? Does the author have the newspaper's owner in mind when writing the article ?
does a written article tell you anything
about people's attitudes towards the event or person it is covering ?