Knowledge Base

Types and Sources of Information

Background Information

Background information provides an introduction to a subject by listing key ideas, important dates, or concepts of that subject. Often, it identifies what prior research has been done and may provide a preliminary bibliography for a research paper.

You can find background information in reference books such as:

  • General encyclopedias
  • Specialized or subject encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Handbooks
  • Almanacs
  • Chronologies

Biographical Information

Biographical information describes the history of the lives of individuals.

Biographical material can be found in books and periodical articles and in reference books such as:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Biographical dictionaries
  • Biographical directories
  • Databases such as Biography and Genealogy Master Index

Current Events and Current Research

Generally, as something happens, it is reported first on television, radio, and the Internet, and then in newspapers and weekly magazines. As time passes, coverage moves from being a mere report or replay of events and becomes much more detailed and analytical.

For information on current events look at:

  • Newspapers
  • Popular magazines
  • World Wide Web

For information on current research look at:

  • Subject specific journals
  • Conference proceedings
  • Technical reports
  • Discussion lists or blogs

Geographical Information

Geographical information provides facts and figures on the location of people and places. Geographical information can also refer to data on regional planning, political geography, and the relationship between people and their physical world.

Geographical information can be found in resources such as:

  • Maps
  • Atlases
  • Gazetteers
  • Travel Guides
  • World Wide Web

Government Information

Government information includes any publications issued by local, state, national, or international governments. Government information includes laws, regulations, statistics, consumer information, and much more. Government documents can come in any size, shape, or format, and can be books, technical reports, periodicals, pamphlets, microfilm, microfiche, posters, slides, photographs, or maps. Since they're published by any of the diverse branches and agencies of government, they can be about anything, although they usually reflect the focus or concerns of the agency that produced them.

Statistical Information

Data gathered and published include items such as population demographics and economic statistics as well as more esoteric items such as personal computer ownership and the flow rates for various rivers. Statistics come from numerous sources. The United States government is one of the largest and most important publishers of statistical information. In addition to the programs of the federal government, most state governments and foreign nations conduct various statistics-gathering programs. Statistics are a valuable kind of information in research because they can provide data for making comparisons and determining historical trends.

For statistical information, look at:

Primary Sources

In the field of history, a primary source is usually a record made at the time of an event by participants or by firsthand observers. Examples include diaries, correspondence, writings of participants in events, parliamentary proceedings, government reports, government/organizational archives, manuscripts, etc.

Primary sources can be very different for different subjects. If you are writing a paper about a woman physician, for example, then her diary would be a primary source. If you are studying popular American culture, specifically daytime television, then episodes of your favorite soap opera would be primary source material! If you are unsure what constitutes a primary source for your topic, ask your instructor for some ideas.

To find primary resources:

  • By using a periodical index, you can find writings of people from different time periods. For example, with the Readers’ Guide or Poole’s Index you can find articles written by people in the nineteenth century. For the full text of the U.S. Civil War/Reconstruction era periodical, look at Harper’s Weekly.
  • You may also use the catalog to locate primary materials. Try typing keywords such as correspondence, diaries, interviews, manuscripts, papers or sources with your topic.
  • In the library’s microforms area there is a significant collection of primary source material reproduced on microfilm or microfiche. Indexes to some of the various collections are in bookcases near the microfilm cabinets.

Secondary Sources

Secondary articles are published in magazines or "popular" periodicals. They typically:

  • present information that has been gathered from primary sources;
  • are written for the general public;
  • offer a review of the subject, and may report on the work of several researchers;
  • are not evaluated by experts in the field before publication;
  • do not have a list of references at the end of the article.

Examples of secondary sources are Newsweek, Time, National Geographic and Science News.

In the field of history, a secondary source is one that interprets or analyzes an historical event. Most academic books and journal articles in the library are secondary sources