Writing Activity 4A:
Examining the Same Topic through Primary and Secondary Sources
Primary and secondary sources can offer writers different views of the same topic. This activity invites you to explore the different perspectives that you may get after investigating the same subject through primary and secondary sources. It should help us see how our views of different topics depend on the kinds of sources we use.
Find several primary sources on a topic that interests you. Include archival documents, first-hand accounts, lab experiment results, interviews, surveys, and so on. Depending on how much time you have for this project, you may or may not be able to consult all of the above source types. In either case, try to consult sources of three or four different kinds.
Next, write a summary of what you learned about your subject as a result of your primary source investigation. Mention facts, dates, important people, opinions, theories, and anything that seems important or interesting.
Now, conduct a brief secondary source search on the same subject. Use books, journals, popular magazines and newspapers, Internet sites, and so on. Write a summary of your findings.
Finally, compare the two summaries. What differences do you see? What new ideas, perspectives, ideas, or opinions did your secondary source search yield? As a result of these two searches, have you obtained different accounts of the same research subject? Pay special attention to the differences in descriptions, accounts, or interpretations of the same subject. Notice what secondary sources add to the treatment of the subject and what they take away, compared to the primary sources.
Conducting a Library Search for a Writing Project.
If you have a research and writing topic in mind for your next project, head for your brick-and-mortar campus library. As soon as you enter the building, go straight to the reference desk and talk to a reference librarian. Be aware that some of the people behind the reference desk may be student assistants working there. As a former librarian assistant myself and as a current library user, I know that most student assistants know their job rather well, but sometimes they need help from the professionals. So, don’t be surprised if the first person behind reference desk that you speak to will ask someone else to help him or her help you.
Describe your research interests to the librarian. Be pro-active. The worst disservice you can do yourself at this point is to be, sound, and look disinterested. Remember that the librarian can help you if you, yourself, are passionate about the subject of your research and if, and this is very important, the paper you are writing is not due the next day. So, before you go to the library, try to formulate some concrete research questions. For example, instead of saying that you are interested in, say, dolphins, you may be able to ask a questions about the attempts by people to train dolphins as rescue animals or some other similar topic.
If the librarian senses that you have a rather vague idea about what to research and writing about, he or she may point you to general reference sources such as indexes, encyclopedias, and research guides. While those may prove to be excellent thought-triggering publications, use them sparingly and do not succumb to the temptation to choose the first research topic just because your library has a lot of resources on it. After all, your research and writing will be successfully only when you are deeply interested in and passionate about the subject of your investigation.
If you have a more concrete idea about what you would like to research and write about, the reference librarian will be likely to point you to the library’s online catalog. I have often seen, in campus libraries across the country, librarians doing searches together with the students, helping them to come up with or refine a writing topic.
Find several different types of materials pertaining to your topic. Include books and academic articles. Don’t forget popular magazines and newspapers. Popular press covers just about any subject, event, or phenomenon, but does it differently from academic publications. Also, don’t neglect to look in the government documents section to see if there has been any legislation or government regulation relevant to your research subject. Remember that at this stage of the research process, your goal is to learn as much as you can about your topic by casting your research next as far and wide as you can. So, do not limit yourself to the first few sources you will find. Keep looking.
Remember that your goal is to find the best information available. Therefore, you have to look in a variety of sources, If time is a concern, however, you may not be able to study the books dedicated to your topic in detail. In this case, you may decide to focus your research entirely on shorter texts, such as journal and magazine articles, websites, government documents, and so on. It is, however, a good idea to at least browse through the books on your topic to see whether they contain any information or leads worth investigating further.
Activity 4C: Learning your Cyber-library
- Go to your school library’s website and explore the kinds of resources it has to offer.
- Conduct searches on a subject you are currently investigating, or interested in investigating in the future, using the a periodical locator resource (if you library maintains a separate periodical locator resource). Then, conduct similar searches of electronic databases and research guides.
- Summarize, whether in an oral presentation or in writing, the kind of sources you have found and your search process. Pay attention to both successes and failures that occurred as you searched.
Activity 4D: Evaluating the Content of Websites
Go to one of the following websites:
The Heritage Foundation (http://www.heritage.org)
The Center for National Policy (http://www.cnponline.org)
The Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu)
The American Enterprise Institute (http://www.aei.org)
Or choose another website suggested by your instructor.
Browse through the content of the site have to offer and consider the following questions:
- What is the purpose of the site?
- What is its intended audience? How do we know?
- What are the main subjects discussed on the sites?
- What assumptions and biases do the authors of the publications on the site seem to have? How do we know?
- What research methods and sources do the authors of these materials use?
- How does research help the writers of the site state their case?
Apply the same analysis to any online sources you are using for one of your research projects.