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Information Literacy Modules: Types of Sources

Disciplines of Knowledge

Disciplines of Knowledge

Before we define the types of sources you will be working with, let’s consider the three major disciplines of knowledge:

  • Humanities: The Humanities include academic disciplines that focus on human society and culture. These include language (ancient and modern), literature, geography, history, philosophy, religion, art and music.
  • Social Sciences: The Social Sciences include academic disciplines that focus on the study of society and how people behave. These include, but are not limited to, economics, human geography, demography, political science, management, psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, jurisprudence, linguistics, and criminology.
  • Sciences: The Sciences have several sub categories, but include academic disciplines that focus on understanding the natural and physical world. These include biology, chemistry Earth science, space sciences, physics, computer sciences, mathematics, statistics, engineering, and medical and health sciences.

Why would we need to know this kind of information when researching? How information is produced can vary between disciplines. Consider this table:

Discipline Purpose of Research Research Methodology Examples of Primary Sources Examples of Secondary Sources
Humanities To understand and analyze the meaning of individual events, people, and creative works Qualitative Creative Works, diaries, letters, interviews, news footage books and journal articles
Social Sciences To solve social problems and understand group interactions

Qualitative, Quantitative

Census data, statistics, results of experiments of human behavior books and journal articles
Sciences To observe and understand natural phenomena Quantitative Results of experiments, research and clinical trials books and journal articles

In looking at the Purpose of Research in relation to the Examples of Primary Sources for each main discipline, you can see that the methods of information gathering vary. So depending on which discipline a class assignment falls within, the type and currency of information needed to complete said assignment will be determined by the discipline. Projects for health related classes require information that is no older than 5 years. That limits most sources to journal articles. Projects for a history class will include more detailed analysis that does not need to be as current, and will require more book materials. A current events project will need extremely recent publications, and will utilize magazines, newspapers, and potentially Web sources. The scope of the assignment will help to clarify which types of information needed.

Formats of Information Sources

Reference Sources. Let's begin with reference sources. Reference sources are usually defined as works that contain a collection of useful facts or information. Unlike a book which is meant to be read cover-to-cover, reference sources are used to find specific and concise information. If you are looking for statistics, definitions or concise background information, reference sources can be very helpful.  There are several types of reference sources including encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases and handbooks.

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Encyclopedias. Encyclopedias provide a compact overview of a topic. There are two types of encyclopedias - general and subject specific. General encyclopedias provide concise overviews on a wide variety of topics. Subject specific encyclopedias contain in-depth entries focusing on one field of study.  Encyclopedias are written by authors who are experts in their field of study. This is one of the reasons that sites such as Wikipedia are not appropriate sources for an academic paper.

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Dictionaries. Dictionaries provide a wide range of information about words, often including information about pronunciation, function, origin, meaning and use.  There are general and subject specific dictionaries. Subject specific dictionaries focus on terms or jargon of specific disciplines such as law or medicine. There are also foreign language dictionaries that provide words and their equivalent in another language. Dictionaries published in print format are arranged alphabetically. Additionally, there are many reliable and easy-to-use online dictionaries.

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Handbooks. Handbooks can either describe how to do something or provide information about an entity or organization. For example, The Florida Handbook provides concise information about the state and its government. It provides a description and explanation of the different branches of Florida's governing bodies as well as names and contact information of important people and agencies. It also provides statistics and brief histories that are relevant to the government of Florida.

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Books and Periodicals. In addition to references sources, libraries contain a variety of resources for locating information on diverse subjects. These information resources include books and periodicals (magazines, journals and newspapers).

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Books are commonly separated into two categories, fiction and non-fiction.  Books of non-fiction examine real events, people or personal views and can provide an in-depth analysis or historical perspective on a topic. Most books go through rigorous editorial processes which make them reliable sources of information. However, not all non-fiction works are necessarily true. Non-fiction can include information that comes from the author's personal perspective or beliefs, this is referred to as bias. As with all sources of information, the researcher must be aware of the objectives of the author.  Books of fiction are works that are imagined by the author to invoke feelings or an experience for the reader. Books of fiction can include short stories, plays, poems or novels.

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Using the Table of Contents. Books offer information on virtually every subject and can be the best source for the historical context of a subject. They are also an excellent choice for collections of diverse viewpoints or an in-depth analysis of a topic. When doing academic research you may have to find a book on your general topic and then search the contents for more specific information. For example, a book on the rain forest may contain information on the types of medicinal plants found there.  Books are arranged into chapters which are usually listed in outline form at the beginning in the section called the table of contents. This may be the organizational method most familiar to students. Once you locate a book on your topic, consult the table of contents for the chapter that contains the information you need. Tables of contents can include a simple list of chapter titles or may contain detailed information or subheadings listing the contents of individual chapters.

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Using the Index. Additionally, most non-fiction books contain an index found at the back. An index is a list of subjects, names and places that are discussed in the text of the book and provides the page number(s) where that information can be found. Indexes are arranged in alphabetical order and allow for quick access to the exact location of the information you require. Think of an index as a kind of old-fashioned, analog keyword search!

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Another information resource available through the Library are periodicals. These are publications that appear on a continuous and predictable schedule. Some, such as newspapers, can be published daily, others, like professional journals, may only be published quarterly, meaning four times a year. Let's look at some typical library periodicals.

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Types of Periodicals. Popular Magazines. Scholarly Journals. Newspapers. Trade Publications.

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Popular Magazines. Popular Magazines cover a wide range of subjects of interest to the general public. The articles in popular magazines are often written by journalists and rarely cite their sources. Since they are written for the general public, they are often written in a style that makes the information easy for the reader to understand. Some popular magazines now offer online subscriptions, but the complete contents of hundreds of popular magazines are available for free to students through the Library's online research databases.  When should you use magazines? To find information or opinions about people in the news. To find information or opinions about current events. To find articles on a wide variety of topics written for the non-expert or general public.

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Scholarly Journals. Journals, many of which provide scholarly or peer-reviewed publication, offer articles written by researchers and other knowledgeable people in a specific field or profession. Unlike magazines, journal articles are written mainly for other professionals and are generally published by professional organizations or associations. They usually contain footnotes and cite their sources, have few, if any pictures, although they may contain charts and graphs used to illustrate statistical information. Some journals are now published directly online, usually requiring a subscription to view. Thousands of journals are accessible for free to you through the Library's collection of online databases.  When should you use journals? To find scholarly research and expert opinion. To find out what professionals are writing and publishing about your  topic. To find bibliographies that point to other sources for information.

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Newspapers. As with magazines, newspapers are written by journalists for the general public. Newspapers can be very important in several ways. First, since most newspapers are published on a daily basis and are updated even more frequently on their Web sites, they can be the most current source of information available. They also often have a geographical focus so they can be good sources of information for local issues or events. The database, America's Newspapers, offers content from hundreds of U.S. newspapers through the Library's collection of online databases.  When should you use newspapers? To find the most current information. To find information of local interest. To find editorials, commentaries, expert or popular opinion.

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Trade Publications. Trade (or professional) publications are written by experts who are employed in the trade or profession. They may look like popular magazine/newspaper articles or scholarly journal articles, but are not peer reviewed.  Trade publications are written to provide news and interest stories to people in specific professions such as fire fighting, hotel management, accounting, equestrian, etc.  When should you use trade publications? When you want to find information about practical application of an idea within a profession. When you need business information. When you need to see what the most important or current issues are in a profession.

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Online Resources.

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It is important to understand that not all online resources are created equal. Companies, governments, news organizations and organizations of all kinds now use the World Wide Internet to publish information. But keep in mind as you research your topic that anyone with a computer can publish information on the internet. And they do!  A great way to assure that your online sources are reliable is to use the SJR State Library's online collection of databases to access articles and other information. These databases are available from any Internet accessible device and provide collections of articles from established publishers that have been checked for accuracy and reliability. They also provide sophisticated search capabilities allowing the user to search for information by date, peer-review and other important limiters.  The internet does provide some excellent information, including some information not available anywhere else. However, not everything on the internet should be considered appropriate research material for a college-level paper. We will discuss the various criteria used to evaluate the reliability of information in the Evaluating Sources module.

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Many video and audio recordings will provide you with good information for your research project. Depending on the content, video and audio could contain popular, scholarly, or trade information. Video and audio are also sources of primary and secondary information. Primary sources of video and audio are interviews, music recordings, recordings of historic events, and live-action film. Secondary sources of video and audio are documentaries and educational films or radio programs. Video and audio materials include CDs, DVDs, film and television programs, streaming media on the Web, or digital files. You can also find videos through library databases like Films on Demand.   Unfortunately, there is no single search that will display all streaming videos in the online catalog. However, if you search the Library Catalog by title, subject, etc., all matching streaming videos will show up.

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Check out the video below from Oviatt Library at California State University to help summarize all of these descriptions. There is an image that says: CSUN Oviatt Library

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Primary vs. Secondary Resources

Primary Source

A primary source is firsthand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. It may also be scientific data, statistics, or an official transcript of a government proceeding. Primary sources may also be original artwork or works of literature such as a novel or collection of short stories. Examples include:

  • Diaries, memoirs and letters
  • Official documents and records
  • Original manuscripts
  • Legal cases, transcripts, minutes and hearings
  • Interviews, oral histories, personal narratives
  • Research data and reports
Secondary Source

A secondary source is a description by a person not present at the event and relying on primary source documents for information. Secondary sources usually analyze and interpret primary sources. Examples include:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Literary criticism/reviews
  • Statistical abstracts
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
  • Books which provide analysis and overviews

 Watch this quick video below that helps to clarify and reinforce these concepts.

Invisible College: Personal Interviews and Listservs

The invisible college is a group of people or an individual who shares their expertise of a topic. Conducting research via human resources of knowledge can timely but also biased.


  • Personal Interviews
  • Listservs

When should you use the invisible college? 

  • To find the latest information on your topic.
  • To get the opinion of someone in the field.

Our next segment will wrap up this first module, and provide you with some review questions so you can see if you are grasping the content.

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