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Information Literacy, Level One: Library sources and web sources

This guide is designed to support the Information Literacy unit within ENG 111, but also provide a first-level introduction to research skills for any Meredith College student.

Why use the library?

Although there is a wealth of information available on the internet, effective research will usually involve use of library resources as well. Library resources offer information which is:

1.  Vetted and reliable:  Library resources come from reputable publications with editorial oversight.  This means when you use library sources, you're much less likely to find erroneous or unreliable information. 

2.  Not available for free:  Much of the best information out there (like recent books and scholarly articles) is available only by purchase or subscription, not for free on the web.  The library buys books and subscribes to databases so that you can access this information.

Web sources

In addition to the library’s resources (books, periodical articles, reference sources) you may also find useful information on the free web, by searching with Google. Google can be especially helpful for information on very current topics, and on popular culture.

But there are some important things to keep in mind when using information from a Google search:

  • Not everything is available through Google! The full text of most books and journal articles will not be on the free Web.
  • Sites on Google are ranked by popularity, not quality; so there may be some problematic sources very high in your results.
  • Websites you find with a Google search have not been vetted for quality or reliability-- so you need to use your judgment before you include information from a website in your paper.

Web Sources: Understanding the "Top Level Domain"

One piece of information that can help in understanding a website's is the group of letters at the end of its web address (sometimes called the "Top Level Domain").  Here are some of the most common domains, and the kind of sites they are associated with:

  • com     Often a company/business (but can be used by any type of site)
  • org       Often a nonprofit organization (but can be used by type of site)
  • edu       An educational website, mainly used by U.S. colleges and universities
  • gov       A government website-- usually a government in the U.S.

This top level domain can be useful, but it doesn't tell the whole story of a site; for example, a .edu site could be a professor's research, but it could also be a students' research paper or a college's marketing information.  And sites from non- US governments and colleges will not use .edu or .gov addresses (they will usually use the domain that indicates their country).  So while it can be helpful to look at a website's domain, to decide whether that site is a valid source for your paper, you will need to look further.

Video Tutorial: Finding online information in the library

Library sources: Books

For many topics, library books can be an extremely helpful resource.  Library books:

  • Can provide a general overview, along with in-depth information.
  • Are broader than articles, and often much easier to apply to your topic.

However, books are often not as current as articles, and so may not contain much information on very recent events or the latest research.

Library sources: Articles

Another useful resource for your research will be articles from periodicals (publications that come out on a regular basis).  These articles are often divided into:

Scholarly articles (in academic journals):  Written by scholars, checked by other scholars.  Primary audience is scholars or experts in the field (but students use them too!)

Popular articles (in magazines and newspapers): Usually written by journalists, and checked by editors.  Primary audience is the the general public.

Both types of articles can be useful for your research!   However, articles are often very specific, which can make them difficult to apply to your topic.   If you are looking for a broad overview or background information, you may have more success using books and reference sources.

Information Timeline

Information timeline

From the moment an event happens, a variety of different types of publications about it begin to emerge.  The chart above shows these types of sources on a timeline.  Sources at different points on this timeline bring different strengths and weaknesses to your research. 

Internet news sites or newspapers offer useful firsthand accounts of events right after they happen, but may contain inaccurate information since the full story may take days or even weeks to unfold and understand.

In contrast, scholarly journals and books are often published months or years after the event.  This allows more time for authors to process and digest all the evidence and perspectives about what happened.  However, these sources often lack direct quotes and insights from people who experienced the event firsthand.