Step 1: Context

In order to understand something better you need to know where it comes from.

You know the mystery mush comes from a dorm cafeteria, not a fancy restaurant, your grandmother’s kitchen, or a trash can. This is important information that should begin to shape your understanding of the mystery mush.

At a fancy restaurant you’d trust that the mush is good and made with fresh, high-quality ingredients.


In your grandmother’s kitchen you’d probably know something about the quality and flavoring, since you’ve eaten her cooking before.

mush grandma color

If you saw the mystery mush in a trash can, you’d know you should not trust it.


Think of what you know about dorm cafeteria food:

Who makes it?


What do you know about it that could help you figure out what the mystery mush is?

Similarly, before you begin to read a source, you need to think about:

Where and when was it published?

Look at the date.

Primary Sources:

What historical period does it come from?

Secondary Sources:

Is it current?

Older sources might be based on research or assumptions that are no longer valid.


Look at the type of publication and the publisher.
(newspaper article, scholarly book, private diary, etc.)

Primary Sources:

How was the source originally produced and circulated?

Who was the intended audience?

Secondary Sources:

How was the source originally produced and circulated?

Who was the intended audience?

For example, an academic journal article has a different process of publication than a self-published webpage. Knowing how many other people had to see and evaluate this material before it was published can help you assess the source’s credibility.

Who wrote it, and what do you know about the author?

Look at the title page, the copyright page, the author’s biography, and the acknowledgments section, if there is one.

Primary Sources:

Does the author’s background give her expertise about a topic?

Secondary Sources:

Different disciplines often make arguments in different ways.  Knowing the conventions of the discipline in which you’re working can help you assess how responsibly the author is addressing her material.

Looking at all this information can help you understand how to read the source.


If you decide that the source is not useful, see if looking at it from a different angle can help you. If not, stop reading and find another source.