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COM 1040: Public Speaking

Getting an Overview of Your Topic

An excellent place to start your research is to get a broad overview of your topic to understand the scope and possible resources. Encyclopedias are resources that have broad overviews of topics and there are specialized encyclopedias for different subjects or research needs. For example, your speech will be about a topic your classmates could be in support of or opposed to. Opposing Viewpoints in Context is an encyclopedia that breaks down both sides or views of a topic. CQ Electronic Library has encyclopedia articles on hot topics. Both provide summaries with links to other sources.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Sources can be described as primary, secondary, and tertiary. These categories describe how many layers of interpretation a source has.

Click the tabs at the top of this box to learn about each layer of interpretation.

Concentric venn diagram with source as the inner circle, interpretation as the next circle, and collection of interpretations as the biggest circle

A primary source is raw information. This can look differently depending on the discipline. In the sciences, raw information could be a data set; in the humanities, raw information could be the piece of art, a manuscript, or sound recording; in the social science, raw information could be a diary, newspaper clippings of an event, or census data.

Primary sources contain the information that is the focus of your research.

Concentric venn diagram with source as the inner circle, interpretation as the next circle, and collection of interpretations as the biggest circle

While the databases listed below can be used to find primary sources for a variety of topics, some disciplines have specific collections. See a subject guide for more resources.

Secondary sources are interpretations of raw information. They may or may not contain the raw data. For example, an anthology of letters written by a historical figure can contain the primary source of photographs or transcriptions of the original letters and be accompanied by the secondary source of short essays that provide context for the letters. Most books and journal articles will fall into this category.

Secondary sources provide context for the information at the focus of your research.

Concentric venn diagram with source as the inner circle, interpretation as the next circle, and collection of interpretations as the biggest circle

While the databases listed below can be used to find secondary sources for a variety of topics, some disciplines have specific databases or collections. See a subject guide for more resources.

Tertiary sources are collections of interpretations (secondary sources). Like secondary sources, they may contain parts of primary sources but the purpose of a tertiary source is to give a broad overview of the scholarly conversations around a primary source. These are typically referred to as reference sources like dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, textbooks, handbooks, literature reviews, etc.

Use tertiary sources to start your research.

Concentric venn diagram with source as the inner circle, interpretation as the next circle, and collection of interpretations as the biggest circle

While the databases listed below can be used to find tertiary sources for a variety of topics, some disciplines have specific books or databases. See a subject guide for more resources.

Other Reference Databases