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Evaluating Information

Introduction to the types of resources available for research, their purposes, and the value of those resources in research.

Introduction

This guide is designed to help you:

  • Identify the difference between a primary and a secondary source
  • Discuss the roles that each type play in academic research

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are evidence that was created at a time under study. They include printed, manuscript/archival, audio/visual, and born-digital materials. When analyzing a primary source, it’s important to consider who the intended audience might have been. For example, a letter could have been sent to an individual reader; a newspaper article would have been intended for a broader audience. 

  • Use primary sources to inform your research about a particular time, place, or individual.
  • Primary sources can be found online through research databases, websites like Twitter, and digitized special collections, including many items from the Brown University Library's Special Collections. Search the Brown Digital Repository for digitized special collections material
  • Upon request, the Library can scan some primary source material that is not already digitized.

Note for research in the sciences: Primary sources in the sciences are forms of documentation of original research. This could be a conference paper, presentation, journal article, lab notebook, dissertation, or patent.

Example

You want to find pre-20th century examples of cross-dressing.

You spoke with your professor and a librarian, and they suggested you search the Brown University Library collection of digitized special collections material for cross-dressing.

Dozens of images from the Brown University Library's Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection appear in the search results. The one titled, "Hannah Snell, the female soldier" (1750) (shown at right) is of particular interest to you. 

Things to notice about this document include:

  • Image details, like the subject and situation depiction
  • Publication date
  • Context provided by the text below the etching

Image of etching

Link to image

Ask yourself: How could this image be used as evidence to support my research?

Citation: Boitard, Louis-Philippe, "Hannah Snell the female soldier" (1750). Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:227249/

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are scholarly or other analyses of a primary source, created by a person not directly involved with the time period or event being studied.

  • Use secondary sources to recreate, analyze, critique, and/or report on a particular topic based on review of a single or a collection of primary sources.
  • Secondary sources available online include ebooks and journals. Learn more in the Finding Information tutorial. 
  • If a secondary source is unavailable electronically through the Library, you can suggest a purchase. Once the suggestions is received, we will try to find an electronic copy of the material.

Note for research in the sciences: Secondary sources in the sciences are publications that comment or analyze original research. This could be a handbook, monograph, public opinion, encyclopedia, or government or public policy.

Example

Based on the research we were doing in the first example, let's look for research that others have done about cross-dressing in history, especially around the time that the etching above was created.

You can search the Library's catalog (BruKnow) with the keywords cross dressing 18th century 

Within the results, you see a book titled In the Company of Men: Cross-dressed Women around 1800.

Krimmer, E. (2004). In the company of men : cross-dressed women around 1800. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press.

If you click to get more information on the book, you will find useful information to provide context and background for the etching, housed in the Library's Special Collections. 

Further Reading

Learning Objectives

This guide was designed to help you:

  • Identify the difference between a primary and a secondary source
  • Discuss the roles that each type play in academic research
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