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This is College Now: Part One

What are primary and secondary sources

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

Secondary sources are often used to understand primary sources.

Below is a video that explains the differences between primary and secondary sources if you would like additional information on this topic. 

What is an archive?

 An archives is a place where people go to find primary source information.
Formats represented in a modern archival repository include photographs, films, video and sound recordings, computer tapes, video and optical disks, as well as the more traditional unpublished letters, diaries, and other manuscripts.  Researchers use these records both for their administrative value and for purposes other than those for which they were created.
 Archivists preserve and provide access to the records that have been identified as having potential enduring value.  This involves identifying and selecting records, then arranging those records to make them usable and housing them in acid-free materials in order to aid in their long-term preservation. Archivists often create guides to collections to provide information about the scope of the records as well as contextual information about the why, how and by whom they were created.

Reading Sources

Researchers, essentially, utilize the same analytical and reading comprehension skills when they access primary and secondary sources. However, the practical reality is that most undergraduate research relies on an exponentially larger volume of secondary sources, rather than primary sources. This then means that the researcher should have an additional set of skills that allows them to expedite the process of assessing secondary sources.  These skills, usually utilized in the order they are listed, are: 

  1. Skimming
  2. Scanning
  3. Close reading and, 
  4. Corroborating. 

The four reading methods work in conjunction with each other: you begin by skimming (general overview of the material) and/or scanning (locating specific facts), which then tell you which resources you will be doing close readings of, and based upon the close readings, you then decide which information needs to be corroborated. This methodology is particularly useful when there are large volumes of condensed information to be distilled, as is usually the case with secondary sources.

While skimming can save you hours of laborious reading, it is not always the most appropriate way to read. It is a useful method to preview a more detailed reading or when reviewing a selection heavy in content. But when you skim, you may miss important points or overlook the finer shadings of meaning, for which a thorough reading will be required.

To skim, prepare yourself to move rapidly through the pages. You will not read every word; you will pay special attention to typographical cues-headings, boldface and italic type, indenting, bulleted, and numbered lists. You will be alert for keywords and phrases, the names of people and places, dates, nouns, and unfamiliar words. Some recommendations when skimming primary documents are:  

  • Glance through the document. Try and figure out if there are key points being made that are related to your research topic;
  • Stop and quickly read the sentences that appear to contain keywords, boldface, italics, highlighting, or that have annotations.
  • When you think you have found something significant, stop to read the entire sentence to make sure. Then go on the same way. Resist the temptation to stop to read details you don't need.

Good skimmers do not skim everything at the same rate or give equal attention to everything. While skimming is always faster than your normal reading speed, you should slow down in the following situations:

  • When you skim topic sentences
  • When you find an unfamiliar word
  • When the material is very complicated

Scanning, too, uses keywords and organizational cues. But while the goal of skimming is a bird's-eye view of the material, the goal of scanning is to locate and swoop down on particular facts.

Facts may be buried within long text passages that have relatively little else to do with your topic or claim. Skim this material first to decide if it is likely to contain the facts you need.

When you are scanning, it is important to:

  • Know what you're looking for. Decide on a few key words or phrases–search terms, if you will. You will be a flesh-and-blood search engine.
  • Look for only one keyword at a time. If you use multiple keywords, do multiple scans.
  • Let your eyes float rapidly down the page until you find the word or phrase you want.
  • When your eye catches one of your keywords, read the surrounding material carefully.

 Adapted from Skimming and Scanning (Butte College) 

Close reading

Close reading involves annotating text and looking for clues such as:  patterns, repetitions, contradictions, and similarities that help the reader better understand the purpose, meaning, and interconnected ideas.  Close reading also involves posing questions, identifying main ideas, and paraphrasing key concepts.


Corroborating involves checking important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement. This is where secondary sources are utilized in research. Depending on the level of primary source research you are doing, it is not always possible to corroborate the details that are provided in the document. It is your job as a researcher to assess if these details bear inclusion in your research as new historical evidence, or if they should be discredited, which requires an evidence-based explanation of why they are not valid.

Differences between libraries and archives

Archives Libraries

have unique materials, thereby providing distinctive points or view or rare information

published materials, therefore multiple copies are usually available in various locations 

organize collections by creator, which allows for a different perspective than a third party author

materials are organized by subject, so everything on the same topic is put together making it easier to figure out what may or may not be helpful to your research 

closed stacks, which means you are not able to browse or casually look through what is on the shelves

open stacks, which means you can go to the shelves directly and select what you would like to use for your research 

non-circulating materials, which means you are not able to take originals home. You either have to do all your research on site, or make copies of materials if the archives allows copies

circulating materials, which means you can take the items with you (unless they are reference items). You are able to find materials on a "time crunch" and use them where it is convenient for you 

have primary sources

traditionally have secondary and tertiary sources

Structuring presentations

When planning a presentation, regardless of how you structure it or what format you use, you always want to ensure that you include all the components that your professor has identified as being required. With this stated, generally, there are three parts to a presentation: 

  1. Introduction
  2. Main part (the 'body')
  3. Conclusion 

The general guideline--regardless of discipline or level of research--is that the structure of the presentation should not be too complicated: the simpler it is, the easier time the audience will have in following it. 

Below are some suggested guidelines for each component of your presentation 


  1. Personal introduction: who are you and why are you talking to the audience 
  2. Introduce the topic: state the purpose of the presentation and provide a brief outline of the main points you'll be addressing

Main part (the 'body')

Present the topic: this is the main part of a presentation and it is where you explain the topic, state facts, justify them, and give examples related to your topic. You want to make sure that you cover everything you stated when you introduced the topic at the start of the presentation. 

This section of the presentation: 

  1. Should make up about 70% of the total presentation and should have a clear structure. Explain your ideas in detail and build them up in a way that is logical (chronologically, by priority, or by topic), ensuring that there is a smooth transition between each idea. 
  2. Audiences appreciate when data and statistics are presented visually; and when pictures are used, ensure that they underline facts. 
  3. Do not include all of the text of your written assignment as part of the visual presentation; audiences tend to have a difficult time reading large quantities of text while there is an oral presentation occurring. 


  1. Key points: you should provide a brief summary of the most important key points covered during your main presentation, summarize what the audience should have learned, and if appropriate, how the information presented connects to other presentations or to other topics. 
  2. Questions and Answers: it is good form to leave some time at the end of your presentation to ensure that your audience can ask you questions. 

This content was adapted from How to structure a good PowerPoint Presentation

But what about tertiary sources?


I can guarantee that you've all used tertiary sources, you just didn't know that's what you were using!

A tertiary source provides compiled information: they draw their content from primary and secondary sources, and present it to you usually in a brief and concise format. Things like encyclopedias, textbooks, guidebooks, factbooks, chronologies, and indexes are all recognized as being tertiary sources.

Tertiary sources are an excellent way for you to obtain the background on a topic, idea or event, and to begin figuring out what primary and secondary sources you will need to use for your research. However, tertiary resources are usually not considered acceptable for your works cited and/or bibliography, and professors will specify if there are tertiary resources they allow for your research papers.