Finding and Using Sources: A Brief Guide

Photo of Mark Twain (A Primary Source)For some academic writers, finding good sources can feel tedious and tangential to the writing process. “I know what I want to say,” some students have told me; “I’ll find the sources I need to support my views after I’ve written my essay.” I try to explain to such students that research and source-gathering are part and parcel to the writing process, for how can one write compellingly about a topic without knowing what has already been said about it? Because traditions and conventions lie at the center of good scholarship, engaging academic work must always position itself within the conversation ongoing in its field or fields, regardless of whether it is confirming, qualifying, or railing against the ideas of its predecessors.

Academics often group sources into two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. While the classifications of primary and secondary sources vary between fields depend on how an author uses a given source, most sources can be easily grouped into one of these categories using the definitions below:

Primary Source: A primary source is an “original” material or “text”–that is, a material that does not explicitly refer to a prior material–such as a letter, poem, newspaper article, photograph, or painting. As the library at James Cook University describes,┬áprimary sources are materials that “have not been filtered through interpretation, condensation, or . . . evaluation.” They typically form the focus of academic research in the humanities, wherein scholars seek to explain the conditions that gave rise to the primary source┬ámaterial or certain facets that it exhibits.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, A Secondary Source

Secondary Source: A secondary source is a document that contextualizes one or more primary sources, such as a book, movie, theater review, a history textbook, or the essays that undergraduates and graduate students are constantly writing in their classes. These sources analyze, synthesize, and evaluate primary material and can, as a result, be useful tools for finding appropriate primary sources for one’s own scholarship.

By no means absolute, these classifications depend in large part on the way in which a scholar uses a document. A memoir, for example, might be used either as a primary source (if a scholar were examining the author or one of his or her friends characterized within it) or a secondary source (if a scholar were using the memoir to examine the setting or culture in which its author lived). But as challenging as it sometimes proves, understanding how one uses these kinds of sources and how particular sources have been used by other scholars in the past is a necessary step to producing academic work that is clear, aware, and original.

In addition to scouring the bibliographies of secondary sources, librarians and museums are also useful resources for finding good primary sources. Scholars can usually find good secondary sources by searching the catalogue in their university’s library or by performing searches in online databases such as LexisNexis, Academic Search Premier, and JSTOR. Good sources not only help students discover what they want to say, they also help scholars know what can be said and what is worth saying.