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Different Types of Sources

This tutorial explains some of the differences between books, journals, magazines, websites, etc.


So your instructor assigns a project … and it requires "outside resources."

Where do you start???

Books, periodicals, websites … Is there a difference?

Each resource is different. Find information faster by choosing your source based on the type of information you need.

Section 1: Books

Reference Books

If you need a brief overview or a quick fact on a topic, try a Reference Book like an encyclopedia.

For Example: If you need to know what sports are popular in the South?

You could try … The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

Here is that book's entry on "Sports (in the South):"

"Three games clearly dominate the south. Football is the most popular sport, but baseball and basketball are also played, enjoyed, and in some places avidly followed. The relative importance of baseball, football, and basketball varies across the South, but almost all Southern states exceed the national average in output of major players in all three sports. Other sports that the South is involved in are stock car racing, horse racing, hunting, and Florida is the shuffleboard capital of the world. Despite federal laws requiring equal opportunity for women, women's sports receive little support in the south. Considerable progress has been made, but, in general, the South lags behind national averages in women's sports."

Non-Fiction Books

For more information on a topic, try a Non-Fiction Book.

For Example: If you need to know how solar energy works?

You could try…The Renewable Energy Handbook

Tip: You DO NOT need to read the entire book!

Instead, use the table of contents or the index to find sections of the book on your topic.

Going back to our example, for The Renewable Energy Handbook, to learn about solar energy, you would only need to look at Chapter 1 "Solar Energy."

Books and reference books can be found at the SCC library. Search the Catalog to find a book on our shelves (more on this later).

We also have 280,000 eBooks you can read online (from anywhere)!

Tip: Always look at the copyright date on a book or reference book. Books take a while to publish, so make sure the information is current.

Section 2: Periodicals

Periodicals are different than books because a book is published once, but periodicals publish new issues every month, every week, or even every day.

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are all periodicals, so what’s the difference?


Journals are usually geared towards a particular subject. Some examples are Welding Journal, Science, New England Journal of Medicine, Culinary Arts, Journal of Radiation Protection.

The articles in the journal are written by experts in that field for other experts in that field.

Many times, they are also reviewed by other experts before being published - to try to ensure accuracy.

For Example: To stay on top of the changes in her field, a nurse might read The Journal of Practical Nursing.

If we look at one of the articles in this journal, it's written by two registered nurses with doctorate degrees.

And also before being published, the article was reviewed and checked for accuracy by several nurses.

This makes journals the most authoritative type of periodical since they are written and reviewed by experts.


Magazines are also geared towards a subject, but their articles are written for the general public (not people in the field), and they are written by journalists, who are trained as writers (not-experts in the subject area).

You are probably familiar with some magazines: Sports Illustrated, Field and Stream, Ebony, Cosmo, Newsweek, Parenting, People, National Geographic, Health, etc.

For Example: A nurse would not read Health to learn about the health field. However, the general public might because it offers simplified information.

If we look at one of the articles in this magazine, it's written by journalists, who probably have no medical training.

Because they are not written or reviewed by experts, magazines are not as authoritative as journals.


Newspapers are great sources for current events. They help you find out what is going on in your city, nation, or all over the world.

However, newspaper articles are written very quickly by journalists without much editing/review, so they are not very authoritative. Use them in your research only for current events.

The easiest way to search for articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers is to use one of our library databases (more on this later).

Section 3: Websites

Now what about the internet and all the millions of websites out there?

The internet is an amazing source of information, but use it carefully. Anyone can put anything on the internet. There is a lot of information … good, bad, and ugly!

Look for official, authoritative websites. Try to stay away from blogs and forums that tend to be people's personal opinions (more on this later).

For Example: If you need to know where Starbucks gets their coffee? Is it "ethically sourced."

The first place to check is the Starbucks website. They have a "Global Responsibility Report" available that tells you their official numbers.

Or…what if you want to know how many people died in car accidents in 2012?

Try the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website.

A report on their website reports the current estimate to be about 34,000 people.

A librarian can often help you find an official website or good source of information - just ask!

Caution: While the internet is great, not everything can be found on the internet! If you only search the internet, you'll be missing out on a huge amount of information.

Many of the resources we talked about earlier (books and periodicals) cannot be found for free online.

Why? Because the companies that publish those books and periodicals want to make money (yes, it's always about money).

They don't give their products away for free. Instead, the library purchases them for you. (Trust me, it's expensive.)

Check Your Understanding: 3 Review Questions

Check your understanding #1: Which source is most likely to have a brief overview about the events of the 1950s?

Your choices are:

  1. Reference book
  2. Journal article
  3. Magazine article
  4. Newspaper article

Answer: (stop here if you are still thinking about your answer)

The answer is the Reference book. Journal articles are going to be really specific and in-depth. Magazine articles are going to also be about specific issues rather than give an overview. And newspaper articles are short and only cover daily events. A reference book, like an encyclopedia is the best place to find an overview of a decade.

Check your understanding #2: For a research paper on the American education system, which source is likely the most authoritative?

Your choices are:

  1. Journal article
  2. Magazine article
  3. Newspaper article
  4. Website article

Answer: (stop here if you are still thinking about your answer)

The answer is the journal article. Journal articles are usually written and reviewed by experts before publication, which makes them more authoritative than magazine and newspaper article that are written by journalists. And webpages are written by all sorts of people and usually with no one checking them for accuracy. There are good, authoritative webpages, but journal articles are much more likely to be authoritative.

Check your understanding #3: Which source is the best way to find Walt Disney World’s mission statement?

Your choices are:

  1. Journal article
  2. Magazine article
  3. Non-fiction book
  4. Website

Answer: (stop here if you are still thinking about your answer)

The answer is website. Journal articles and magazines are not likely to have this information, and it could be hard to find in a non-fiction book (and it might not be up-to-date). Disney's website is by far the best place to find this information.

This is the end of this tutorial.

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