Skip to Main Content

Research @ Reynolds Libraries

2 b. Comparison of information sources

Identifying different types of 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.

Types of Information - Comparison Table




Reference Books:

  • Almanacs 
  • Dictionaries
  • Directories
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks

Reference books 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.
  • Search for online & print encyclopedias via the Reynolds Libraries Catalog.
  • Search online encyclopedias & other reference books via the library databases (e.g., Oxford ReferenceGale Ebooks).
  • Search the Internet for free ready reference resources.
  • Browse the library's reference shelves for print encyclopedias.


  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Primary
  • Secondary

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.
  • to put your topic in context with other important issues.
  • summaries of research.
  • 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.
  • to read various points of view or popular opinions (e.g., editorials, commentaries).
  • scholarly articles or original research.
  • to find out what has been studied on your topic.
  • need references that point to other relevant research (journal articles).

Government Documents:

  • Local
  • National
  • Worldwide
  • Statistics

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.
  • historical or current data or statistics.


  • Images
  • VIdeos
  • Audio

The Web allows you to access most types of information and multimedia on the Internet through a Web browser such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Edge. 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 Google or Bing.

When to use - need: 

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