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General Library Research Tutorial
Module 3: Understanding Source Types

Learning Objectives

  • Define an information need.
  • Given an information need, select an appropriate source type.
  • Understand the concept of peer review.
  • Differentiate between popular and scholarly periodicals.
  • Differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

Defining an Information Need

An effective way to begin a search for information is to define your information need. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Do I need background information?
  • Do I need a general overview?
  • Do I need comprehensive information?
  • Do I need a quick reference to a specific fact?
  • Do I need in-depth information on a narrow topic?

Once you determine what information you need, you're ready to select the types of sources that best fit your need.

Types of Sources


Encyclopedias contain short, factual entries by contributors with expertise on the topic. There are two types of encyclopedias: general and subject. General encyclopedias contain concise overviews on a wide variety of topics. Subject encyclopedias provide in-depth entries focused within a single field of study. Encyclopedias are an excellent place to start your research. Use them to find background information and gather important dates, names, and concepts. You can find encyclopedias in the Library Catalog.


Academic Books

Academic books typically provide comprehensive, thorough treatment of a subject. Some academic books synthesize all information on a topic to support a particular argument or thesis. Other types of academic books have an editor and each chapter has a different author. Use books when you need to gather a lot of information on a topic, contextualize your topic, find historical information, or find summaries of research to support an argument. You can find books in the Library Catalog.


Scholarly Journals

Scholarly journals contain articles written by experts in an academic field. Journal articles can cover very specific topics or narrow fields of research. They usually include bibliographies. For most college level research papers, you should rely heavily on scholarly articles. Use them to research your topic, learn what others have studied on your topic, and find bibliographies that direct you to other relevant research. You can find scholarly articles in the Library's article databases.


There is a subset of scholarly journals called peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals are the most authoritative scholarly journals. If you use articles from peer-reviewed journals, they have been vetted by scholars in your field for quality and importance. 

Watch this short video to learn how peer review works:

Source: “Peer Review in 3 Minutes” by North Carolina State University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License.


Magazines contain articles written for the general public with the purpose of informing and entertaining. Magazines are designed to be easy to read, which can make them a good starting point when first trying to understand a topic. They can also provide a contemporary point of view and information or opinions about popular culture or current events.



Newspapers contain articles about current events and are usually published daily. Use newspapers to find current information about international, national, and local events. Also use them to identify trends in public opinion. Older issues of newspapers provide a record of past ideas, problems, and events. You can find newspapers in the Library's newspaper databases.


Primary Sources

Primary sources are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event. For example, diaries, letters, speeches, and photographs can serve as primary sources. In the sciences, primary sources are documents about original research written by the original researchers themselves. Primary sources can also include raw data, an artifact from an archeological dig, or a newspaper article written soon after an event took place.


Note the difference between primary sources and secondary sources. Secondary sources describe or analyze primary sources. Secondary sources can include encyclopedias, textbooks, reviews, and books and articles that interpret, review, or synthesize original research.

Government Publications

Government publications are issued by local, state, national, or international governments. Government information includes laws, regulations, statistics, consumer information, and much more. A substantial amount of government information is available online.



Use websites to find current information, company information, government information, and expert and popular opinions. Because internet sources have no quality standards, you should evaluate all information carefully to make sure it is reliable.


Popular Magazines vs. Scholarly Journals

It is important to be able to to distinguish between popular magazines and scholarly journals. Your professors will often ask you to use only scholarly journals in your project.

Popular magazines and scholarly journals are both types of periodicals, meaning they're published periodically, that is, in regularly recurring intervals. However, they have important differences:

  Popular Magazines Scholarly Journals
Author Journalist; nonprofessional or layperson. Sometimes author is not named. Expert (scholar, professor, researcher, etc.) in field covered. Author is always named.
Credits Few or no notes or bibliographic references. Usually includes notes and/or bibliographic references.
Contents Current events; general interest. Research (methodology, theory) from the field.
Style Journalistic; easy to read. Uses technical language.
Audience General public. Scholars or researchers in the field.
Review Reviewed by editors employed by the magazine. Usually reviewed by peer scholars not employed by the journal.
Appearance Glossy; many pictures in color. Plain; mostly text; sometimes includes black and white figures, tables, graphs, and/or charts.
Length Shorter articles; provide broader overviews of topics. Longer articles; provide in-depth analysis of topics.
Ads Many, often in color. Few or none; if any, usually for books or other professional materials.
Frequency Usually weekly or monthly. Usually monthly or quarterly.
Examples National Geographic The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science

Watch this short video to learn more about the differences between popular and scholarly sources:

Source: “Scholarly and Popular Sources” by Carnegie Vincent Library, licensed under a CC-BY License.

If you need help deciding if a source is appropriate for your research project, ask a librarian.

Module 3 Quiz



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