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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Source Types

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

Information Creation as a Process

Information is created for different reasons. Different source types will talk about the same topic in different ways, based solely on the intention of the source creation. The different source types really determine how the information should be used. The information in a book is used very differently than a newspaper, since a book takes much longer to create and will have older and more in depth information, while a newspaper is published frequently, so the information in a current issue is new and brief.

What kind of source you use is entirely dependent on what your purpose is. If you just need a quick fact check, an encyclopedia could be perfect. If you are doing research and writing an academic paper, you are going to want to be using more academic sources.

Part of becoming information literate is knowing what information source to use for what purpose and when to use it. It is knowing what process went into creating each source and letting that help determine what the information in that source can be used for.

This directly relates to your assignments in INFO 1010 as you will use each of these source types as you do research for your ENGL 2010 paper (or any other research project you have). Pay attention to the different source types and how you can use them in the research process.

Source Types

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the original source. The information at its source. This would include original works, diaries, letters, pictures, and original research. Primary sources are the creation of new material, research, or stories.

Some common examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries, letters, emails
  • Autobiographies
  • Original books, plays, music, and movies
  • Data
  • New research published in journal articles, etc.
  • Original documents, such as birth or marriage certificates, etc.

examples of primary sources such as SUU's Shakespeare folio and a data set showing research about Shakespeare plays.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources discuss or analyze an original source. A book review is an example of a secondary source, since it is talking about an original work, which is the newly published piece of literature. Most journal articles and literature reviews are secondary sources, since they analyze and discuss primary source information.

Common examples of secondary sources include:

  • Most non-fiction books
  • Monographs, biographies, creative non-fiction, etc.
  • Book or movie reviews
  • Literature reviews
  • Journal articles that aren't original research
  • Your term papers

examples of secondary sources: The Journal of the Wooden O (an academic Shakespeare journal) and a book titled Reviewing Shakespeare.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are the general information coverage. They are things such as encyclopedias or dictionaries that are giving general information on the subject, usually a synthesis of the primary and secondary sources. Wikipedia is a very common example of a tertiary source. 

Other common tertiary sources are:

  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Fact books

Using Different Source Types

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are summaries of the current knowledge on a subject, which means they are a great place to start to get background information on your topic. Tertiary sources can also direct you to the primary and secondary sources that you can use in your paper.

When you're in the early stages of your research or trying to narrow your topic down, doing background research in the tertiary sources can get you a sense of the overall topic before digging into detailed synthesis and analysis. For example, if you were assigned to write a paper on a Shakespeare play, you could use an encyclopedia to get information on what plays were written by Shakespeare, as well as the background information about the play and its main points and issues. This could help you pick a play, as well as narrow in on the topic that you want to talk about when analyzing the play you picked.

examples of tertiary sources such as Wikipedia, The Oxford English Dictionary, and Encyclopedia Britannica

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources are good for getting the first hand account of the information. Secondary sources about that information can be good as well, as you can see someone else's perspective on that information to add to your own interpretation as you write your paper. It is good to look at both the primary and secondary sources to see different sides of the issue.

An example:

If you were writing about the play Othello by William Shakespeare, the play itself would be the primary source. But you would need more information about both the play and Shakespeare to get a well rounded interpretation of the play for your paper, so you would use secondary sources about Othello and Shakespeare to get the needed information.

Note for INFO 1010:

As you start the research process in Module 2 assignment, you will use tertiary sources to get background information to help narrow and focus your topic until it's right for a 7-10 page paper length. You will then start collecting sources for your paper in Module 3 assignment. These sources will need to be both secondary and primary sources.