Selecting the Best Sources for Your Research Paper Help (page 2)
Selecting the Best Sources for Your Research Paper
Now that you have collected information from a wide variety of sources—books, magazine articles, reference texts, and the Internet—how do you choose between them and evaluate what you have? How can you tell which sources are the best for your research paper without having to read through everything that you've found? This lesson will show you what to look for in your materials and how to make the most of what you have.
Primary sources are the most valuable sources of information for any topic or research paper. Even though some of the primary resources you have collected may not seem especially valuable (they might be extremely dated, slightly damaged, or written from a very narrow perspective), they are vital to your work. Primary sources, unlike secondary sources, offer you
- an immediate perspective about an event that happened during the time period.
- opinions that are candid and unique.
- an opportunity for you to draw your own conclusions.
- raw data that may not have been previously listed, collected, or compiled.
In some cases, you may also be the first person to review a primary source. For example, let's say that in your research, you had access to a recently found personal diary of President John F. Kennedy that recounted the days and events before his assassination. Of course, this is highly unlikely, but if it existed, it would reveal information that was not included in previous histories or biographies.
Other Primary Source Materials
Unique primary sources that are often overlooked can also include:
- Personal diaries, chronicles, or notes from a particular time period
- Newspaper articles from a particular time period
- Physical, geographical, or topographical maps
- Official documents—such as the census or other collections of statistics
- Paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs
Although you may not typically think of consulting such diverse sources, all of them are excellent sources of information. Personal diaries contain feelings of individuals and might not be included in books. Newspaper articles from a particular time period do not have the benefit of hindsight and may include key eyewitness accounts or testimonies of events. Maps provide a physical portrait of a specific place at a particular point in history, as well as information about how people in the past perceived the physical world. Official documents serve as legal statements of historical events, people, and places. Any visual sources—paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs—also capture a situation at a precise moment and record it for posterity.
Becoming a Source Detective
Primary sources may be harder to locate than other sources, but they are well worth it. The beauty of working with primary sources—once you've found them—is that you, as the researcher, have to interpret them. You are not reading a famous historian's opinion of a situation; you are analyzing raw writing, visuals, and data and coming to your own conclusions. Sometimes, you will really feel like a detective poring over information as you piece together visuals of ancient historical sites or human experiences from a distant past. Naturally, primary sources give your work and research an authority and uniqueness that make your paper stand out.
Other Tips for Selecting the Best Sources
Mostly likely, in addition to your primary sources, you should have many good secondary sources. Perhaps there are several books that you found devoted to your topic, or maybe there is a great deal written about your topic in reference books or collections. If you were researching the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, there could be literally thousands of books and articles on the topic. How do you begin to pick and choose from all these selections without spending the next five years of your life reading? The first tip to follow when researching secondary sources, particularly books, is to check two places immediately before you begin to read. These key or strategic places to check are:
- the table of contents
- the index
The table of contents will immediately tell you whether there is a chapter about your topic, so you won't have to read the entire book in order to find the information you need. If there is no table of contents, turn to the back of the book and check the index for an alphabetical list of topics. If your topic is still not listed in the index, chances are that, although the title or cover may be catchy, or the book claims to talk about your topic, the author cannot really provide you with key information. If this is the case, don't worry. Two other strategic places to check for information are:
- the bibliography
- footnotes or citations
Many times, even if an author does not directly deal with your topic, it is a good idea to turn to the back of the book and look at the bibliography. What other books and titles did this particular author consult? Are there any that might be useful to you even though the author doesn't deal with them directly? In addition, footnotes provide excellent clues. Check the footnotes at the bottom of the pages or at the end of a book. An author who uses a lot of footnotes or documentation always has to provide the source of the information and the exact page it was found. In this way, even though an entire book may not be helpful to your work, you may get leads for other sources.
Primary sources make any research paper vital and exciting. They are always unique and provide you with the opportunity to draw your own conclusions. Secondary sources are valuable, but always check key strategic places before sitting down to read an entire book that may or may not be valuable to your work. The table of contents, index, bibliography, and footnotes should specifically mention your topic by name, give you precise chapters or page numbers to consult, or list other helpful books.
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