24 Discovering and Documenting Sources

Discovering Sources

Through your institution’s library you can gain access to a wide range of academic sources for literature and the humanities. Be sure to search for sources through your library’s website. This is important because your ability to access the full range of resources available in the databases depends upon you being recognized as a paying student at the college. Your library can provide detailed advice and tutorials for effectively locating resources for your research topic. Below, we will discuss, very generally, the main types of sources that you will encounter as you begin exploring your topic.

Types of Sources

Researchers may encounter three general types of sources: primary secondary and tertiary .

Tertiary sources

Sources that collect, summarize, and/or consolidate information from other sources into a more basic format, such as in an almanac or an encyclopedia, are considered tertiary sources. Tertiary sources are useful reference guides, particularly to confirm factual information; however, they often do not satisfy the aims of including “outside sources” in literary research. For example, if a professor asks for “three outside sources” and you want to use the Encyclopedia Britannica as a source on World War II, it would be acceptable to incorporate it as support and document it; however, it probably is not adding much scholarship to your analysis. To put it another way, if it is important to include a tertiary source in your analytical writing, consider that an additional source beyond the minimum number required. An exception to this advice would be if your desired tertiary source is providing collected statistical information (such as socio-economic demographics) that would be difficult to document otherwise. (1)

Secondary sources

These sources are published writing that discusses or draws upon material originally presented elsewhere with the benefit of hindsight, include journal articles, criticism, biographies, and textbooks. These sources are especially helpful in constructing an analysis of a particular literary work because they offer insight into established scholarly opinions. One of the goals in incorporating secondary sources into your own analysis is to demonstrate that you are able to place yourself in conversations with intermediate to advanced ideas on a subject.

Primary sources

The selected readings in this course are primary sources , for they are original material that may be used as direct evidence in discussing and analyzing a culture and its history. Primary sources include formal documents, such as essays and other published literature, yet may also be less polished writing such as letters and diaries, or more mass produced texts like newspaper advertisements, political pamphlets, and event brochures. Visual artifacts such as paintings, photographs, and other art forms also are considered to be primary sources if they are the original creations. The advantage of a primary source is its direct connection to the time period.

Documenting Sources

All sources must be accurately referenced in analytical writing using a proper citation . A citation is a quotation from, or reference to, a book, article, or other source material that is formally documented. Professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have developed formal systems to document references when writing. Literary Studies is governed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) , a body of professionals including academics from the disciplines of English, Humanities, and Foreign Languages. The vast majority of literary scholarship is written according to MLA Style, the citation guide of the Modern Language Association. (Exceptions might be an article in an education journal that uses APA, for example.) Students always should confirm with their instructors which method of citation is preferred or required for each specific course and write accordingly. Print and online manuals for all major citation guides also are available through your institution’s library or writing center. There are a number of MLA guides available online. The exact details and format required varies slightly for each type of source, whether a book, an article, a film, a website, or an online video. Do not guess . Use the reference guides available to you — and double-check your work.

Incorporating Quotations

Incorporating a quotation may be accomplished directly through the use of exact phrasing, clearly punctuated with quotation marks and documented, or indirectly through paraphrase. Instances of paraphrase cannot use the original language of the source (or the use of direct quotation would be the better choice), but must be documented as the idea has been borrowed.

Beyond the grammatical and punctuation requirements, the importance of working with quotations is to do more than simply quote a source. To fully develop analysis, explaining the connection of a quotation or reference to your focus, as well as commenting upon it in your own words, is key to demonstrating that your analysis is an example of mature writing. That means do not simply “parachute” a quotation or reference it without introduction. Nor should you dramatically insert an important quotation or reference at the end of one paragraph and assume that is speaks for itself; take the time to explain and develop how it is significant. (1)


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