The Information Lifecycle
The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time.
Primary & Secondary Sources
A primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history). Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide valuable insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical event, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.
Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, your primary sources may include scholarly sources published during a particular time period, but may also include popular sources such as magazines and newspapers, as well as unpublished sources like letters and personal manuscripts.
Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.
Some questions that might help when...
Examining a Source
Who is the author?
How is the author qualified?
Is the author an expert?
What is the author's bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated -- but there is almost always some bias!))
What is the source? Is it a research report? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay?
What does this tell you about the source's audience, purpose, and potential bias(es) or shortcoming(s)?
Is the source recent (or, if digital, regularly updated)? When was it published?
Is there any information which seems out-of-date?
Who hosts the site? OR Who publishes this resource?
Does the host/publisher have bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated.)
What is the domain extension?
The publisher and/or domain can help you determine a website's origin. For example, .gov is the domain for United States government sites and .edu is for US Educational institutions. Note that not all .com sites are unreliable and not all .org sites are reputable -- .org simply means that the website is for a non-profit group.
What is the purpose and audience of the source?
What is the benefit, and/or who benefits, if this source reaches and/or successfully convinces readers?
By what means was this source created?
Does the resource provide its sources?
Does it refer/link you to other credible sources?
Can you determine whether the information came from, and whether the original source/info is represented accurately?
General Research Strategies:
Begin your research early. Well-done research is an iterative process; leave yourself time for this process to occur! This has the added benefit of extending your resources to excellent sources which may take longer to locate.
Be efficient. Use the strategies we will discuss together and presented on this guide (such as: choosing appropriate and multiple research tools; making use of advanced search features, subject headings and database limiters; thoughtful choice of keywords; following your sources) to conduct your research in a targeted, effective and efficient manner.
Leave plenty of time to read and understand your sources. This is especially true for primary sources, which may take longer to process (or read, if scans of original handwritten documents).
Follow your sources. Examine the context of those sources (i.e., the scholarly conversation they participate in) and allow that context to lead you to other sources. For example: what else has this author written? What other useful sources are referenced? What other sub-conversations might I want to participate in?
Ask for help as needed. Your research librarians are available to assist you -- it's literally our job! Sometimes this may mean making a research appointment; other times, a quick e-mail conversation will suffice.
Building On Your Research:
No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. You can use a single article or other resource to find other, similar research by tracing the paths of that conversation:
Keywords – Check the abstract, subject terms and full-text to discover the vocabulary being used in this particular scholarly conversation.
Subject Terms – Subject terms not only provide insight into vocabulary you should use but also serve as search tools – click on these tags in any database (or the catalog) to find more resources on a given topic.
Cited References – Check the references list (or bibliography) to see what previous research this resource is drawing on. From here, you may wish to consider:
- Previous articles or books published on your topic
- Other authors who have published on your topic
- Journals where your topic is frequently discussed
Times Cited – Check Google Scholar to see which articles or books have cited your sources, and to find
more-recent research which builds on your original information.
** Once you find a new resource, you can also trace the scholarly conversation around that book/article to find even more resources! **
For a simpler, graphic representation of this research strategy, download the handout below:
You can also download this worksheet to walk you through the process:
There are three main categories of databases that you may encounter while doing historical research:
General (Article) Databases
In order to choose an appropriate database, you should consider your research needs. What do you need at this point in time? Are you still becoming familiar with your topic, or are you trying to fill specific gaps?
Always consider the limitations of your topic. For example, if you are researching European history, you won't get far searching for secondary literature in America: History & Life! This is even more important when searching for primary sources. When selecting a primary source database from our collections, you should try to identify one that matches your topic based on...
For example, if you are hoping to find news reports on influenza infections in London during the 1918 pandemic, not just any primary database will do! You need a resource that:
Need help selecting a database? Consult your professor, or a librarian!