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Information Literacy

This is a learning guide designed to teach students about information literacy and why it matters.

Types of Sources

Books & Ebooks generally provide comprehensive information on subjects, but it is not typically the most recent information in a field. A book takes time to write and publish. During that time, new information is often discovered. Textbooks are a good example; they provide a basic foundation of information that can be enhanced with information from newer information sources such as periodicals. Books can come in print or several electronic formats.

Periodical is a general term that includes everything from newspapers and magazines to annual reports. Because they are published more often than books, the information from them is more recent than what you find in books. There are two basic types of periodicals.

  • General publications like US Weekly, Esquire or The Enquirer are not considered reliable academic resources. They should generally not be used as references in scholarly writings, without further checking the facts. They may, however, provide ideas for starting in-depth research.

    • Although some general publications have fine reputations, their information needs to be verified and confirmed by further research. 

  • Journals are published by organizations of professionals, like the American Medical Association (AMA), or trade organizations, like the American Welding Society (AWS). They are dependably accurate and are usually reliable references, especially when articles from several agree.

    • To ensure accuracy, these publications should have content that is reviewed by other members of the profession or trade. The term for that is peer reviewed. Peer reviewed information is the best choice for your research.

Databases are storehouses of information in which you can search for items relevant to your project. The library pays for subscriptions to databases that provide a great deal of information on a wide variety of subjects. Searching a database may yield two different kinds of results.

  • Full Text links may take you to directly to the content of an item or to a landing page or summary/abstract where you select another link for more content.

  • Citation listings will give you information about an item and the source where the content can be found. For a journal article that would be the article title & author, journal name & issue, and page numbers. You may also find a link to the journal or another site to search for the full content.

    • If you need a particular article and can only find the citation, make a request through ILL (Interlibrary Loan) and the library will search for a copy you can use.

Most databases have the option to limit your search to only items with full text.

Discovery services provide a way to search most of the available resources. It is a good tool for your first steps in defining a topic and research question. Like most database searches, a discovery service has both a basic and an advanced search feature.

  • Basic search gives many general results. It is a good way to start developing your ideas. But, you will likely sift through many results you don’t need. 

    • Our basic Library Search looks for all the search terms anywhere in titles, authors, subject terms, abstracts, full text, and other areas of each document.

  • Advanced searches allow you to find more specific results by searching different terms in different parts of the documents or one specific part like the subjects. 

    • Our Library Search also has an Advanced Search feature. For example: you may search in the Title for (biotechnology), and the Abstract for (mental health) and the Subject for (medical treatment) all at the same time. This will return fewer items to look through and they will be more specific to your needs.

The Library Search Basics tutorials show how to use the library's search box effectively.

Be careful using websites for research. The internet has a great deal of information available but, not all is reliable and accurate. Some information is false, some is dis-information/propaganda, and some only try to make you to buy something. The biggest problem, for even the best researchers, is that there are thousands (at least) of results for practically any search.

You must:

  • Sift through many results for some worth further evaluation.

  • Evaluate each page and site for legitimacy – a major task

This guide to Evaluating Webpages will give you a start.

Important Definitions Related to Source Types

Academic Journal:

A journal that publishes articles written by experts. These experts usually have either a degree or years of professional experience in a particular field. Depending on how the journal checks an article for quality before publication, the reliability of the journal may vary, despite being written by "experts". 

Peer Reviewed Journal:

A journal with articles written by experts and reviewed extensively by a group of other experts. Usually the author doesn't know who is reviewing their article and the peer review group doesn't know who the author is. This anonymity is called "double-blind" peer review and is used to prevent undue bias from affecting the review process.


Primary Source:

A source that provides a direct perspective on a research topic. For medical and scientific fields, this includes journal articles with original research conducted by the author. For literary and historical fields, this includes original manuscripts or first-hand accounts of a story. 

Secondary Source:

A source that provides perspective that is one-step removed, or filtered through someone else's perspective, on a topic. For medical and scientific fields, this can be a literature review of different studies conducted on a topic. For literary and historical fields, this could be an essay someone else has written about a topic.

Tertiary Source:

A source that combines information from both primary and secondary sources on a topic and synthesizes it into a brief summary or description. These sources represent the current general understanding of a topic. Examples include dictionaries, encyclopedias, and fact sheets.

"One Perfect Source?"

This video from NCSU Libraries shows how to frame your search to access the most sources.