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Rhetoric and Composition Research Guide

This is a reference list of resources so that you can conduct research within the field of writing and rhetoric.

Instruct: Sources of Information

Traditional print sources

Reference: A good place to start your research. Use encyclopedias and other reference materials to find the history of your topic, key figures, timelines, scholarship conversation, and the vocabulary (key words) to use when searching for sources.

Books and Textbooks: Books present a multitude of topics. Because of the time it takes to publish a book, books usually contain more dated information than will be found in journals and newspapers.

News Sources and Newspapers: Predominately covering the latest events and trends, newspapers contain very up-to-date information. Newspapers report both information that is factual in nature and also share opinions. Generally, however, they will not take a “big picture” approach or contain information about larger trends.

Academic and Trade Journals: Academic and trade journals are where to find the most up-to-date information and research in industry, business, and academia. Journal articles come in several forms, including literature reviews that overview current and past research, articles on theories and history, or articles on specific processes or research.

Government Reports and Legal Documents: The government releases information intended for its own use or for public use. These types of documents can be an excellent source of information. An example of a government report is the U.S. Census data. Most government reports and legal documents can now be accessed online.

Press Releases and Advertising: Companies and special interest groups produce texts to help persuade readers to act in some way or inform the public about some new development

Media: Printed material is certainly not the only option for finding research. Also consider media sources such as radio and television broadcasts, interactive talks, and public meetings.

Internet-only sources

Web sites: Most of the information on the Internet is distributed via Web sites. Web sites vary widely in quality of information and validity of sources.

Weblogs / Blogs: A rather recent development in Web technology, weblogs or blogs are a type of interactive journal where writers post and readers respond. They vary widely in quality of information and validity of sources. For example, many prestigious journalists and public figures may have blogs, which may be more credible of a blog than most.

Message boards, Discussion lists, and Chat rooms: Discussion lists, chat rooms, and message boards exist for all kinds of disciplines both in and outside of the university. However, plenty of boards exist that are rather unhelpful and poorly researched.

Web Media: The Internet has a multitude of multimedia resources including online broadcasts and news, images, audio files, and interactive Web sites.

from Purdue OWL c. 2013

Primary Sources Examined

Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles--as long as the writer is a first-hand witness) or later (e.g., memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • Primary sources vary by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources--for example dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and textbooks.  (Sometimes these are lumped in with the secondary sources category.) 
  • Keep in mind that a secondary or tertiary source can lead you to a primary source by either referencing it, including it in a footnote or reproducing it in its entirety.  For example, at first glance, a source like “World War I: Encyclopedia” would not seem to be a primary source but if you look at the contents, volume five of this encyclopedia is entirely devoted to transcripts of documents of the war. Many subject encyclopedias like this one will turn out to be a rich source of primary source materials.

The Historian researching World War I might utilize:           

  • Primary Sources: Newspaper articles, weekly/monthly news magazines, diaries, correspondence, and diplomatic records from the time period.
  • Secondary Sources: Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war.

The Literary Critic researching literature written during World War I might utilize:

  • Primary Sources: Novels, poems, plays, diaries, and correspondence of the time period.
  • Secondary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals providing analysis and criticism of the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers from the era.

The Psychologist researching trench warfare and post-traumatic stress disorder in World War I veterans might utilize:

  • Primary Sources: Original research reports on the topic or research notes taken by a clinical psychologist working with World War I veterans.           
  • Secondary Sources: Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research.

The Scientist researching long term medical effects of chemical warfare on exposed veterans might utilize:      

  • Primary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals reporting on a medical research study and its methodology.    
  • Secondary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals analyzing results of an original research study; books doing the same.


Source:  David Kupas's "Finding  Primary Sources" libguide:

Each field of study has its own sources, conventions, and vocabularies.  This list will help you to identify primary sources in your own discipline. 

In general, personal correspondence and diaries or journals are considered to be primary sources by all disciplines. If you are unsure that a source is considered primary by your discipline, ask your professor or a reference librarian for assistance.

  • Archeology/Anthropology: an artifact or object that provides evidence of a society, such as clothing, farming tools, household items, and buildings.
  • Arts and Literature: the original artistic or literary work that forms the basis for a criticism or review, such as feature films, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, novels, plays, and poems.
  • Biology: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).
  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.
  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).
  • Engineering: design notes, patents, conference proceedings, technical reports, and field surveys.
  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.
  • History: government documents (e.g., treaty, birth certificate), photographs, store account books, artifacts (such as those listed for archeology/anthropology), maps, legal and financial documents, and census records.
  • Law: court decisions, trial transcripts, and law codes.


David Kupas's "Finding Primary Sources" libguide:


Library Catalogs

  • Search FIU Catalog to find primary source materials at the FIU libraries.
  • Search WorldCat to find collections at thousands of libraries worldwide. Use the Advanced Search feature to limit by format or publication date.

Finding Aids

Use finding aids to locate processed archival collections in archives, libraries, and museums. Finding aids are increasingly available online and freely accessible.

  • Repositories of Primary Sources - An online listing of over 5,000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources.
  • ArchiveGrid - Finding aids/collection descriptions from thousands of libraries, museums, and archives. Researchers searching ArchiveGrid can learn about the many items in each of these collections, contact archives to arrange a visit to examine materials, and order copies.

Reference & Other Print Sources

Make use of the many excellent print resources that are available to find primary source materials.  These include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Film, Literature, and Periodical Indexes
  • Biographical Resources
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Handbooks
  • Secondary Sources (search the text, footnotes, and bibliographies for references to primary sources used)

Internet Search Engines

  • Use the Internet to find primary source materials by adding primary source specific terms to a Search Engine search. For example, "Civil War +soldiers + diaries."


Keyword/Subject Searching

Adding keywords to a catalog search will help you to locate primary source materials. For example, if you need primary sources about the French Revolution, perform a keyword search by entering the terms "france revolution correspondence"

You may also pair an appropriate heading with additional subject terms that identify materials as primary sources. Some of these terms are

  • sources
  • archives
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • notebooks
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • reports
  • pictorial works
  • songs and music
  • cases
  • case study
  • facsimiles
  • memoirs
  • manuscripts
  • letters (use as keyword)
  • self-portraits
  • maps
  • fiction (written during the historical time period you are researching.)

Note: these subject terms will not retrieve all possible primary sources but they are a good way to start.

Restricting by Date of Publication or Format

  • You may also narrow a search by limiting the results by date of publication or format.
  • Limiting sources to a particular date of publication will help you to locate contemporary sources published at the time of an event. For example, if you are studying British Literature during WWII, refine your search results by using the publication date limiters to retrieve novels published only during the years 1939 to 1945.
  • To limit a search by format, go to the Advanced Search mode and select from the format list as appropriate to your needs.