Sources can be any one item of information where one receives information. Below are some common ones you've probably heard about:
But here are less common ones:
If your research requires out of the box sources, don't limit yourself, just know how to cite them.
You have always wondered if you can trust a source before you use it in your research, or if you're just trying to use it for debating a political point on Social Media and post a news link to support that given point. Following these tabs inside the box will pose a series of questions and present some scenarios for your reflection so you can judge the quality of the source.
Knowing whether you can trust a source is important.
First, you need to judge whether or not the list of sources you've been presented are useful and relevant to your own thesis, research questions, topic, or even the parameters of the paper requirements.
The other questions that follow are something to judge the source overall and are uniform to any evaluator of the source. However, this first, initial question is personal to your paper and your needs.
You've determined that the source works for you but now you've really got to do the real test if this is a good source to use.
First question: Does the source use citations?
Does the source enter into the academic conversation by quoting from other sources?
Does it have in-text citations or footnotes/endnotes? Does it have a bibliography?
If it does, that means it has done it's research and is not just spouting hard to prove data points. If it doesn't can you really trust anything that it says especially hard to prove data points.
Now you need to ask: Who wrote this source?
Can you trust a source without an author (and we're not talking about newswires like Reuters or Associated Press or websites, documents, reports, or statutes written by corporate authors such as a report by the American Cancer Society)?
Can you really trust a source where you can't figure out what kind of experience the author has on the topic?
Now we are talking about sources written in the modern era, if you have run across a historical source that lacks an author, it may be because the author was never identified because the source (and origins of the document) have been lost through time--Beowulf is a prime example--or it would have been socially unacceptable or unsellable to have an author's name attached--prime example are the novels written by Jane Austen which were originally sold as written by a Lady.
Now you've assessed that the author has good credentials. You now have to ask, regardless of their credentials, is the information presented is actually correct?
If it's a set of data, has the method of the collection of said data been enumerated or listed within the source. Has the data been originally collected by the author or been reported on by author?
Judging accuracy may be a difficult thing to do, unless you've also gathered other sources to support your topic. This just proves that it's vitally important never to just use one source for the supporting of your paper and thesis. You may also need to perform some fact checking.
Now that you've assessed that the author is authoritative and the information accurate. Now you've got to figure out what aim the material has.
Why did the author write this piece? To prove a point? To inform us and instruct us on some topic? Or to satirize? To get even for some wrong? To provide political propaganda?
Is the author a liberal or a conservative politically? Are they writing something that is on a hot button topic?
Now here is a caveat. No source or author is without bias. Everyone has an opinion about something. Most sources are out to prove a point. So having a slant is almost necessary, but an egregious bias and using their own politics to taint their offerings is something to consider and question if one can trust the source or not.
You've discovered the author knows his stuff. You know through some fact checking and comparing with other sources on a similar subject, that the information is correct. You've discovered that there is little bias or bias enough for your purposes. But now you've got to figure out how up-to-date this information is.
So there are time constraints about when something is up to date for your reference.
Now for an exercise, pretend you're doing research into Witchcraft in History. Scan through the following sources, perform a Google search on the author (if provided) and judge according to the questions and the previous slides, which sources are the best to use. Note, I have purposefully eliminated the need to ask the relevancy question for purposes of conciseness. Also note, since this is a historical topic, currency may not prove an issue except for those who are knowledgeable about historiography, which for purposes of this guide is not necessary to have. So assume every source has current information.
Sometimes you will also wonder what kind of sources I need for my paper.
It is advised that you simply explore what is available.
Referring to the Information Cycle images above, you may want to figure out how new the topic is and what can be available to you.
You may want to assess what either your personally crafted research questions/thesis or your instructor's parameters for the assignment requires that you use.
You have to remember that it's far more important to ask the questions above about "Source Evaluation" than worrying about the type of sources you should use. Obviously, using scholarly articles and books should be a priority if possible. However, don't confine yourself to books only or journal articles only or web sources only. Find what sources are best, not what you assume is what sources are. If you think that the only thing that you should use are books, then when you find more journal articles than books on your topic, you'll feel defeated but you really shouldn't be because those journal articles may be just what you need to prove your thesis and answer your research questions. The same is in the reverse, if you think journal articles (unless a selection of peer reviewed journal articles are required) are the only things you should use, and you find only books, you'll again feel defeated. This is proof that you should keep an open mind when discovering which sources work for your research questions, parameters of your assignment, or your thesis.
You're asked to write a history essay using a variety of these sources but you don't know what they are.
Primary: Any source that was written at the time of the historical event. A Chronicle from a Medieval Monk (like Bede the Venerable). A letter from a Birmingham jail. A diary of a Puritan Man (Samuel Sewall). A newspaper reporting the wrong election results (Dewey Defeats Truman!) A family will or inventory. A recorded news story. Or it can be out of the box and not written. A photograph of four men crossing the street (the Beatles on Abbey Road). A blood stained dress (Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit worn in November 1963). A deformed human skull (John Merrick's remains). Money.
Secondary: any source, usually books (or chapters in the book) or a journal article, which culls together these primary sources and tries to find an interpretation of why, how, what happened during a given period of time for a given topic, it could be as varied and large as a battlefield history of The American Revolution to a small microhistory of witch hunters in a small Northern Italian Renaissance Era town.
Tertiary: Sources which brings together many secondary sources, usually neglecting to use primary sources at all, and give an overview to the historical event. A history textbook is a tertiary source.