In many upper level English classes, you'll be assigned research papers or projects that ask you to find and incorporate information about the authors and works of literature that you're studying. You might be asked to find additional "primary" or "secondary" sources, or to make sure that the secondary sources you find are "scholarly." But what do those terms mean? This page offers a brief overview of the different types of information sources you may use when researching and writing about literature.
Primary sources vary by field of study, but to begin with it's useful to think of them as providing direct or firsthand evidence about whatever it is that you're studying. They’re the original materials on which other analysis is based. Some examples of primary sources in the field of literature:
It's important to keep in mind that what is considered a primary source can be different in other fields of study. For instance, in history, a memoir written by someone who lived through a particular time period might be considered a primary source, but not a novel. In the sciences, examples of primary sources are a report of the results of an experiment or a report of direct observations.
See the Tools for Finding Primary Sources page of this guide for help finding primary sources in literature. If you're interested in learning about primary and secondary sources in other disciplines, check out the Library Research Guides in other subject areas.
Secondary sources offer analysis of primary sources. They’re called secondary because they are a step removed from primary sources. Some examples of secondary sources in the field of literature:
See the Tools for Finding Secondary Sources page of this guide for help finding secondary sources about literature.
Reference works, sometimes known as "tertiary sources" (think third degree of removal from primary sources), offer a concise overview of primary and secondary information. You don't usually read these all the way through, but use them to look up a word, person, place, thing, or concept. Some examples of reference works:
You’re probably already familiar with general reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, the World Book Encyclopedia, or even Wikipedia, but the library also has subject-specific reference works like the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. These can be useful for:
See the Literature Reference Sources page of this guide for a list of reference sources useful for the study of literature (all of these are available online!).
When it comes to secondary sources, it’s important to consider that there’s more than one kind of secondary source. Usually when an instructor asks you to find a secondary source on your topic, they want you to find a scholarly secondary source.
Scholarly sources, sometimes called academic sources, are written by scholars for an intended audience of other scholars and students. These scholars are experts, usually people like your professors, who have the highest degree/level of credentials available in their field. Scholarly publications are one of the formal ways that scholars communicate their research with each other so they can build off each other's research to collectively advance knowledge in their field as a whole. As you study any college level subject, you too are getting an introduction to this practice of scholarship that involves not just producing, for example, a close reading of a literary work, but doing so in conversation with what other scholars have had to say about your topic.
The two types of publications you'll probably use most frequently are scholarly journals and books. But how do you tell if an article or book you're reading is scholarly?
Scholarly journal and book publishers use a process called peer review when considering which article or book manuscripts to accept for publication. Usually an editor will make a first decision on whether or not to consider a manuscript for publication and, if it passes that test, the manuscript is shared with other scholars in the author's field (the author's "peers") for further evaluation. Even if those reviewers recommend the manuscript for publication, they'll often make suggestions for revisions. For more information about the peer review process, watch this Peer Review in 3 Minutes video from North Carolina State University Libraries.
Yes! Many of the library's databases very specifically search only scholarly sources or they have built-in limiters (also known as filters) that allow you to target scholarly, peer-reviewed information. The descriptions of the databases listed on the Tools for Finding Secondary Sources page of this guide include will tell you if it's a scholarly-only database or how to use the database's limiters to target scholarly/peer-reviewed sources.
A note about books: usually the scholarly/peer-reviewed filters only work for journal articles. If you're using a database that exclusively searches scholarly publications (like JStor or ProjectMUSE), you can assume that any books you find there are scholarly. If you're using a database like Discover that searches all kinds of publications, look at the publisher name check to see if the books you find are published by an academic press. Still have questions? Ask a librarian or your instructor!
A popular information source is a book or article in a publication intended for a general audience (also called a lay or nonexpert audience) and may or may not written by someone who is an expert on the subject covered.
While most of the time your college instructors prefer that you use scholarly secondary sources, there are some times when popular secondary sources can be useful, too. For example:
Trade publications contain information about a particular industry and are intended for an audience of people who work in that industry. They're usually written by professionals actively working in an industry, or by journalists who have knowledge of an industry. You probably wouldn't use a trade source in a literature research paper, but you might consult one if you're interested in creative writing and would like to more about the work of being a writer.