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Choosing, Using, and Citing Sources

Research, information seeking, and citing sources explained in plain English

What am I looking for? [Information Need]

person asking a questionAt various points in your life, work, or classes, you may find that you:

  • Have a question that you don't know the answer to
  • Need to learn how to do something you've never done before
  • Have a problem that you don't yet have a solution to
  • Need to understand more than one perspective on an issue

Each of these situations represents what is called an information need. Your information need is simply the realization that you will need to seek additional information in order to answer your question, solve your problem, or understand an issue. 

Examples of situations in which you may encounter an information need:

  • Your child is sick but you don't know where the hospital is
  • You are moving to a new town and need a place to live
  • You heard about something in the news and want to learn more about what happened
  • Your instructor assigns a research paper

To define your information need, answer the following questions:

  • What's my problem, question, or issue?
  • What do I already know about the topic?
  • What do I still need to find out?

What different kinds of information sources are out there? [Types of Sources]

image depicts document, web browser, and deviceOnce you know what you are looking for, you need to consider where you may find the answer. There are a lot of different places to look, tools to use, or people to consult. All of these places to find information are called sources.

Different kinds of sources can be helpful for different information needs.

Information sources are:

written for different purposes (such as to educate or to argue),

aimed at different audiences (such as children, professionals, or academics), and

presented in different formats (including electronic, print, video, and audio).

Information sources are everywhere!

The internet connects people to many different sources: product and company websites, informational sites, and more. Libraries provide access to the kinds of sources needed by their communities and librarians help their community members connect with just the right source.

Which kind of source is right for my need? [Selecting Sources]

image shows selection of one option out of manyIn order to pick the right source for you, you'll need to think back carefully on what you are trying to find, understand, or answer. Then consider the characteristics of the source that can help. 

The Western library provides access to the kinds of sources Western students need most often such as:

The library also provides access to some specific sources for different subject areas and topics including:

If you're uncertain about the right source for you, Western's Student Learning Librarians can help. 

Should I trust this source? [Evaluating Sources]

icon shows hands holding an X or a check mark, indicating decision of yes or noWhen selecting sources, there are two main questions to ask as you decide whether or not it will meet your needs:

  • Is this source relevant to my information need?

  • Is this a trustworthy source?

There are other considerations which can help you answer those (potentially complex) questions, but it's important to keep in mind that your sources should answer your question and be quality sources deserving of your trust.

To evaluate each source:

  1. Take a quick look through your source to understand its contents
  2. Try to determine if it contains the information you need to answer your question or solve your problem
  3. Consider the source's creator, intended audience, and purpose. Go "upstream" to the original source of the information if needed. 
  4. Decide if it is worth trusting

There are other more detailed strategies you can follow for evaluating sources (some examples include asking the 5 W questions or using a source evaluation checklist), but, unfortunately, there's not always an easy yes or no answer here. Instead you need to make a thoughtful decision using any information you can find about the author, website, publisher, or material. The quality of the answer to your information need depends on this, so don't skip this process when choosing sources!

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