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Research @ Reynolds Libraries

2 b. Information sources - comparisons

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources:

Materials which have not been interpreted by another person.  Original document/writing created at or near the time an event occurred. Primary sources provide first hand accounts or experiences of events. Information is generally presented in its original form, whether it be a work of literature or art, or an account of an event or experience, or original documents or research products such as interviews, speeches, questionnaires, letters, diaries, manuscripts, memoirs, etc. Includes books, periodicals, and web sites.

  • Search online & print primary sources via the Library Catalog.
  • Search for online primary sources via the Library Databases.
  • Search the Internet for free primary sources.
  • Search the catalogs of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide for primary sources: WorldCat.

Secondary Sources:

Secondary sources provide second hand accounts of events.  These sources include materials that have been reported, analyzed, or interpreted by people who do not have firsthand knowledge of an event and may be found in books or periodicals, or on web sites.

  • Search online & print secondary sources via the Library Catalog.  
  • Search for online secondary sources via the Library Databases.
  • Search the Internet for free secondary sources.
  • Search the catalogs of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide for secondary sources: WorldCat.

The Information Timeline

Created by Joyner Library, East Carolina University

Types of Information - Comparison Table

Primary and secondary sources can fall into any of these information type categories:

Information Types

Coverage / Use

Retrieval Methods

Reference books:

  • Almanacs
  • Dictionaries
  • Directories
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks

Provide overviews on any given topic. They can include background information, factual data, key ideas, important dates, and concepts. Can be general (e.g., Oxford World Encyclopedia) or specialized (e.g., Military & Government Collection). 

When to use: 

  • If you know very little about your topic, reference sources are an excellent place to start research.

Books

Books cover virtually any topic, fact or fiction. Books typically provide an in-depth examination of the given topic, usually from a retrospective point of view. Most research-oriented books are works of non-fiction (e.g., textbooks).  Fiction works include novels, short stories, and poetry. For research purposes, you will probably be looking for books that synthesize all the information on one topic to support a particular argument or thesis.

When to use:

  • need historical or detailed information on a topic such as the civil rights movement in the United States.
  • need to put your topic in context with other important issues.
  • need summaries of research.
  • need to support an argument.
  • need several points of view in one book such as collected critical essays on Shakespeare’s works.

Periodical articles:

  • Journals
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers

Periodicals are published on a regular ongoing basis (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly).  Journal, magazine, and newspaper articles tend to be more specific or about certain aspects of an issue compared to books. Periodicals provide up-to-date information on the latest developments on various issues or current events and are usually from a contemporary point of view. Articles can be brief & general or in-depth & focused in on a very specific or local topic.

When to use: 

  • need up-to-date information about current issues, popular culture, or international, national and local events.
  • need to read various points of view or popular opinions (e.g., editorials, commentaries).
  • need scholarly articles or original research.
  • need to find out what has been studied on your topic.
  • need references that point to other relevant research (journal articles).

Government Documents

Government sources from all levels of government (international, national, state and local) provide both historical and current information, and statistical data.

When to use: 

  • need information from various levels of government or on various social issues.
  • need historical or current data or statistics.

Multimedia:

  • web pages
  • images
  • music
  • videos

The Web allows you to access most types of information and multimedia on the Internet through a Web browser such as Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome. One of the main features of the Web is the ability to quickly link to information. The Web contains information beyond plain text, including images, sound, music, and video.  Since anyone can publish on the web, you need to carefully evaluate what you retrieve through search engines such as Yahoo and Google.

When to use: 

  • need and image, video clip, or audio clip for your presentation, blog, etc. because it better conveys a message, feeling, thought, etc.
  • need news stories on current events.
  • need expert and popular opinions on various issues.
  • need company information.
  • need information from various levels of government.
  • need information and online resources provided through the Reynolds Libraries