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Content and Context

With the growth and widespread proliferation of electronic bibliographic databases, "free" resources accessible via the internet, and search engines such as Google®, the responsibility for confirming facts, evaluating opinions, and determining value has increasingly fallen on shoulders of information users. In the rush to complete an assignment or a project, it is tempting to cut corners.

Data and information sources can be categorized broadly as: primary; secondary; and tertiary. Primary sources are created contemporaneously with the event, possibly as a result of primary research. They are likely to present a single opinion or agenda (that of the observer) and include such things as: raw data collected by qualitative or quantitative research; correspondence, memos; diaries, journals, notebooks; interviews, speeches, personal narratives; realia; sound and visual recordings; and sometimes government documents and records, though not necessarily government publications.

Secondary sources provide: interpretation and analysis of event; often undergo an editing and review process; and frequently have a secondary bias (that of a reviewer, editor, sponsor). Most books and periodicals (journals, magazines) are secondary sources.

Tertiary sources are digested items, which include: many ready reference materials (encyclopedias, compendia, directories, dictionaries, bibliographies); news digests; reports from news services; and numerous web based materials (faqs, site maps, advertising, news and events).

Good research practices involve getting as close to the original source of the data / information as possible. For instance, if Article A quotes from Article B, and you want to use the information from that quote, you should find Article B. You need to confirm: first, that Article B exists; second, that Article B actually says what Article A quotes; third, that the quote is not taken out of context or given a different context than intended by the original author; and fourth, that the quote is not from a third source entirely.

Even information which seems factual may not be. If you read a news article, hear something on television, or find a journal article that has relevance to an assignment or research project, you need to find out where the presented information came from, and why. Was it agenda-laden? Was it taken from a press release? Was it derived from a study by a private research organization? Are the sponsors of the research indicated? Did it appear as part of a government report? Was it from a prominent, and frequently quoted, journal title? Did it present a "pre-interpreted" set of data? Is it telling you what someone said, and what they meant, rather than offering you the chance to hear or read that information for yourself?

When faced with such an item, you need to identify important names, dates, and content presented by the item in order to find more complete information and to create an appropriate context for the information you have found. Content gives you quantity; context allows you to begin to assign quality.

Context also allows you to take the original information in different directions.

If you know very little about your topic, try traditional reference resources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and the like. The information they will provide is brief; however, before you can formulate a specific and focused thesis statement, develop research questions, and suggest a testable hypothesis, you need to gather the standard, the accepted and the politically correct. In determining who, what, when, and where generally, you will build a foundation to begin your speculation and research on how and why.

Continue by exploring controlled bibliographic databases and identify some monographs (books). Quest (the online library catalogue at UNB Libraries) contains records for accessible books in the UNB physical collections and contains links to the full-text of thousands of electronic books. Quest can be searched by author, title, keyword and subject. To help you turn your topic into searchable subjects and aspects, try the Library of Congress Subject Headings, available online as part of the Library of Congress Authorities. Many of the entries will suggest broader, narrower and related terms. As well, subject entries may suggest specific aspects which might accompany your subject such as geography, economics, ethics, gender, age, and the like.

These entries should help you express your search in databases which use LCSH as a controlled vocabulary. You will also be able to use them to develop some other ideas about what you might search in databases which do not use LCSH or any other controlled vocabulary (for instance, the internet). Some disciplines have developed their own standard set of subject headings and these may be assigned in addition to or in place of broader schemes such as LCSH. For example, MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) forms the controlled vocabulary developed by the US National Library of Medicine and used in medical bibliographic databases such as PubMed.

Remember, if there are former headings (headings which are no longer in use), you might want to search them as well; the records in many databases are not updated when new headings are approved. In some cases you will turn up records that use both the current and an earlier heading; in some cases the record may exist only in one search or the other.

Most undergraduate assignments will require that you move beyond books to periodical literature on your topic.


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This page created and maintained by Linda Hansen.
Comments and suggestions to: lhansen16@gmail.com
Created: 1998/01/31 Last updated: 2014/05/06
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