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Searching Tips

Finding the Right Information & Sources

When starting your search, it is important to know what type of information you are looking for and what type of source you will find it in.

Information can be organized into categories that describe its creative origin, place in time, and authority.

Different types of sources will provide different kinds of information in relation to how the source is published.

Categories of Information

Categories of Information

Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary

Primary In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic, used in preparing a derivative work.

Ex: Diary entry or original manuscript

Secondary Any published or unpublished work that is one step removed from the original source, usually describing, summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, derived from, or based on primary source materials. Also refers to material other than primary sources used in the preparation of a written work. Ex: Biography or book review
Tertiary A written work based entirely on secondary sources rather than on original research involving primary documents. While secondary sources are almost always written by experts, tertiary sources may be written by staff writers who have an interest in the topic but are not scholars on the subject. Ex: Textbook or encyclopedia entry

Current or Historical

Current Information that is in progress, recent, or up-to-date. Information published within the last five years is usually regarded as "current." Ex: An article on the applications of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Historical Information about the past, opposed to the current state of affairs. Ex: A book on phrenology (i.e. the process that involves examining the skull to determine an individual's psychology)

Scholarly or Popular

Scholarly Information written by experts and published after peer-review to advance the scholarship of a particular field. Ex: A case study published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Popular Information written for a general audience by a journalist or freelance writer that does not undergo peer-review before publication. Ex: A magazine piece on the latest trends in app technology.


Types of Sources

Types of Sources Description / Characteristics Examples

Reference Sources

  • Reference books provide overview information on different topics
  • You refer to these sources for quick information
  • They include bibliographies or references to other sources on a topic
  • The information within them is organized in particular ways (alphabetically, chronologically, etc.)
Types: Encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases/maps, almanacs, bibliographies, manuals, concordances, yearbooks, etc.

Encyclopedia Britannica 


Indices / Indexes

  • An open-ended finding guide
  • An index provides a list of informational headings (subject terms, phrases, names, etc.) and where to find it in a work or body of work(s)
  • Follows a specific format (much like a reference work)
  • Analyzes contents of a publication
Most people are familiar with an index found at the back of a book, but they can span a whole author or discipline.

A Hand-Book Index to the Works of Shakespeare

The New York Times Index


  • In-depth coverage ranging from scholarly in-depth analysis to popular books
  • Authors range from scholars to professionals to journalists
  • Include reference books which provide factual information, overviews, and summaries

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Origin of Species

Periodicals (Magazines, Journals)


  • Published on a schedule (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.)
  • Includes articles written by different authors with oversight by an editor or group of editors
  • Popular magazines are intended for a general audience or specific nonprofessional groups
  • Scholarly journals are intended for professionals within a field and typically contains vocabulary 

Periodicals vary in scope, depth, and range depending on whether they are popular or scholarly. More information on periodicals can be found here.


Social Psychology Quarterly

News Sources (Newspapers, Social Media, etc.)
  • The who, what, why, and where of the event
  • Quick, not detailed, regularly updated
  • Authors are journalists, bloggers, social media participants
  • Intended for general audiences


The Boston Globe