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A Research Guide: From the Secondary Source to the Primary Source

Types of Reference Sources

Reference sources are designed to present information in a wide variety of formats. They come in the form of dictionaries, encyclopedias, directories, bibliographies, indexes, catalogs, checklists, and atlases as well as electronic databases and web resources and are designed to help navigate vast amounts of information. They can assist in anything from supplying specific factual information to providing citations for additional resources to consult. Reference sources range from the very general to the very specific. Where do you begin and what sources can be most useful? The most important thing to remember in our increasingly electronic age is that it is absolutely necessary to consult both print and electronic reference sources. Many invaluable reference sources aren't available on the web or in electronic databases.

Research Activity -- Browsing the Reference Collection

It is best to become familiar with a wide range of reference sources so that you can use them as necessary throughout the research process. It may be useful to go to the Reference Collection of your library and shelf read. In other words, move from aisle to aisle and look at the titles of the books on the shelf. You can begin by searching for the titles in the List of Reference Sources to Consult. Pay attention to how the titles are arranged and what titles are shelved together. Finally, take some of the titles off the shelf and look inside. Remember this guide only offers suggestions. You will encounter many other reference sources that aren't part of this guide. It is up to you to evaluate the reference sources you use for accuracy [see Evaluating the Source].

Research Activity -- Accuracy of Reference Source Entries

A reference source is ultimately a secondary source and although the intention of a reference source is to provide factual information about a subject, the information contained within is actually an evaluation of the evidence that exists. In most cases, those assigned to research the facts for an entry for inclusion in a reference source are knowledgeable about their assigned topic, but the information is still being presented by someone who wasn't present at the event. Some reference books have many authors who write the entries; others have only a few contributing editors who research and write the entries. Reference sources then contain information based on another's research, which in turn is an interpretation of the evidence.

Throughout the research process, you will find that there are many unanswered questions about the Battle of Bunker Hill. If there is little evidence left behind or what does exist is conflicting, then it is difficult to make concrete conclusions about the facts. In the reference sources you will consult, you will find many variations of the actual numbers of deaths, casualties, and prisoners at Bunker Hill. As a matter of fact you will also find that there isn't a comprehensive "official list" of those who actually fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. These are good examples to show that history isn't black and white or that there isn't always a yes or no answer to a question. We can make informed judgements, but often there is no conclusive evidence to determine exactly what happened. Pay close attention to the statistics given in other sources you encounter during your research journey and be sure to stop and compare conflicting numbers presented in the literature.

Table of Contents | Reference Sources | Exhibit Introduction
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