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English 413: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Groundwork Research Tips for Scholars

Getting Started...

English scholars most often engage with two kinds of sources:

1) primary (e.g. a novel, an historical letter, a poem, a play)
2) secondary (e.g. a paper, chapter or book written about said novel, letter, poem, play)

Primary sources can be rich in adventure that involves new ideas, concepts, people, places, words - especially historical primary sources. If we're reading Shakespeare, for example, we might run into the words 'quatch' and 'wappened.' Interesting, yes! But if we don't don't what they mean, chances are we'll not be able to make proper sense of what comes next.

Secondary sources tend to be focused on a specific, even minute, aspects of a primary works. If we don't know a lot about the subject they're addressing, secondary sources can seem highly detailed on the one hand, and frustratingly oblique on the other. Sometimes they refer to so many things that are obscure to us that we cannot comprehend the writer's intent or main point. For example, if we're reading Shakespeare criticism and run into the 'Courts of Admiralty,' or the (apparently related?) concepts of 'catling,' 'rebeck' and 'soundpost,' we might be left quite baffled. 

To help mitigate these dilemmas, we can turn to a third source of information - aptly called 'tertiary.'  Reference materials fall into the tertiary category, and are an excellent place to begin scholarly research. They are materials we 'refer' to for:

  • overviews
  • background information
  • checking details
  • definitions and facts

Titles of reference material often contain one of the following words:

  • encyclopedia
  • companion
  • handbook
  • dictionary
  • guide
  • bibliography

1. 2. 3.... for Tertiary!

This 2:23 minute video will help demystify the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary materials.
Thanks to Suffolk County Community College Library for creating it.


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