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Researching in the Humanities: Step 1: Getting Started

Steps, tips and library tools to help you with your Humanities Research

Types of Information Sources

The information you find and use as you do research in humanities can be broken down into three types of sources: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Primary sources are original material  created at the time of the event or by the subject you are studying. This uninterpreted material is used by humanities researchers to support their arguments and opions about their research topic.  Examples include:

  • personal letters, autobiographies, original works of art, literature, newspaper accounts of an event as it happened

Secondary sources are works that interpret and analyze the primary sources. Examples include:

  • journal articles, books about a subject or person, critical reviews

Tertiary sources index or collect primary and secondary sources. These sources tend to be most useful for background information and will lead you to the more in-depth secondary and primary material.  Examples include:

  • encyclopedias, bibliographies, dictionaries, online databases

Finding Background Information: Using Tertiary Resources

Tertiary Resources are an excellent place to start your research as they can help you become familiar with your topic and give you strategies for narrowing your topic. Tertiary sources such as encyclopedias can provide you with:

  • An overview of your topic and main concepts
  • Important vocabulary and keywords to use as you search for additional, more specific information
  • Bibliographies that point you to further research on the subject

There are two types of encyclopedias, general and subject. 

  • General encyclopedias provide quick summaries and basic information on research topics.  An example of a general encyclopedia is Grolier Online
  • Subject encyclopedias provide more sophisticated context and concepts and will be most helpful to you as you begin your research. Encyclopedia of Buddhism is an example of a specialized subject encyclopedia.

Start with Discovery

Search Discovery to find general and specific encyclopedias that will provide background material on your topic.