Learning Objectives

By the end of Tutorial 2: Understanding Source Types, you should know how to:

  • Define an information need.
  • Select an appropriate source type for a given information need.
  • Understand the concept of peer review.
  • Differentiate between popular and scholarly sources.
  • Differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

Estimated tutorial time: 25 minutes

Defining an Information Need

Defining an Information Need

Before you spend much time looking for information on your topic, you will need to think about and define your information need. There is a wealth of information to be found in the library and on the open web - making the right selection of sources will depend on what information best addresses the questions you need to answer. When thinking about  types of information available, 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


Use websites to find things like current information and news, general background or overview information, expert opinions (and lots of popular opinions too!), company information, and government information. Internet sources don't have uniform quality standards (for example, anyone and everyone can publish content online, and a lot of the time you don't know who the author or creator is), so you should always evaluate online information carefully to make sure it is reliable and trustworthy.

Example websites: cdc.govncaa.orgaap.orgwomenwhocode.com



Encyclopedias are made up of short, factual, overview articles. 

  • 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 (including Wikipedia, which is a free, crowd-sourced online encyclopedia) are an excellent place to find background information and gather important dates, names, and concepts related to your topic. If you would like to use encyclopedias whose articles are written by subject experts (and that your instructors might be more comfortable with you citing than Wikipedia), you can find many formally published encyclopedias in the library catalog or by using the Libraries' Encyclopedias Research Guide, which includes links to reference collections such as CREDO ReferenceOxford Reference, and Britannica Online



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 and eBooks (academic as well as "general" or "popular") in the library catalog.

Academic books are typically written by academics (e.g., college professors) and/or published by a university press (e.g., University of Minnesota Press, Stanford University Press). They provide a comprehensive, thorough treatment of a subject, and all academic books contain a detailed bibliography of sources at the end of the book. Some academic books synthesize information on a topic to support a particular argument or thesis. Other types of academic books are edited anthologies where each chapter is written by a different author and an editor brings all of these chapters together as a whole.



Newspapers contain fact-checked 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 archival issues of newspapers provide a record of past ideas, problems, and events, which is helpful for in-depth historical research.

You can find newspapers on the open web or in the Libraries' Newspaper Research Guide.  



Magazines contain articles that are written to inform and entertain the general public. These articles are designed to be easy to read, which can make them a good starting point when you're 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.


Government Publications

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

Examples: 2010 Census Data (U.S. Census Bureau)National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education)UNESCO Institute for Statistics (United Nations)


Company Profiles & Industry Reports

Company profiles often include a business description, financial statements, competitors, key employees, and more. Industry reports often include market forecasts, trends, challenges, and more. You can find company profiles and industry reports in article databases like Business Source Premier (for company profiles, click "Company Profiles" on the blue bar at the top of the page) and First Research (includes industry reports from Dun & Bradstreet).


Scholarly Journal Articles and Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

Scholarly articles are written by experts in an academic discipline and they are written for other experts, so they cover very specific topics or narrow fields of research and often use terms with which the general public might not be familiar. Original research articles will frequently use the same or similar headings within the article (e.g., Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Analysis, Conclusion), and they almost always include detailed bibliographies. You might want to start off by reading more general introductions to your topic before diving into scholarly articles, but they're useful for gaining an in-depth understanding of your topic, learning how others have researched that topic and what questions or areas for further research still remain, and finding bibliographies that direct you to other relevant information. For most college-level research papers, you will be expected to include scholarly articles as sources. Scholarly articles are originally published in scholarly journals, and you can search for scholarly articles in many of the CSB and SJU Libraries' article databases

Examples of scholarly journals:

Peer-reviewed articles are articles published in a subset of scholarly journals called peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journal articles have been vetted by other scholars (the author's peers in that particular field) for accuracy, quality, and importance, so they are often considered the most authoritative academic sources. If you plan to use peer-reviewed articles in an assignment, many of the Libraries' databases include an option to only search for peer-reviewed articles. You can also do an online search for the name of the journal an article was published in to see if it is peer-reviewed.

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.

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
Examples The Atlantic Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology
Author Journalist; professional writer. 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.

If you aren't sure what you instructor will "count" as scholarly, it's okay to ask them! You can also ask a librarian to help you decide if a source is appropriate for your research project. 

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.

Primary & Secondary Sources

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. 


The Libraries' Primary Sources Research Guide includes links to many websites and databases that can help you find primary sources. 

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.

Watch the following video to review the differences between primary and secondary sources:

Source: Hartness Library. "Primary vs. Secondary Sources." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 25 January 2017. 1 August 2020.

Quiz 2: Understanding Source Types