Skip to Main Content

Skills at Library Essentials

Guides to search skills and using library research resources

Resource types

What kind of source?

What are primary sources?

  • Original materials on which other research is based
  • Provide firsthand evidence 
  • Created or documented at the time of an event 
  • Do not include subsequent interpretation or commentary 

Examples of primary sources

  • research articles and theses
  • newspaper reports
  • original artwork and literary works
  • photographs
  • speeches
  • diaries
  • correspondence 
  • interviews and first-hand accounts 

What are secondary sources?

  • Describe, interpret or analyse information from other sources.

Examples of secondary sources

  • textbooks
  • books
  • journal articles (not detailing new research- research articles would be primary sources)
  • dissertations 
  • commentaries or criticisms
  • newspaper articles that are not reporting firsthand on events (e.g. opinion pieces, analysis)

What are tertiary sources?

  • Compile and summarise sources.
  • Organise, categorise or index primary or secondary sources.
  • Usually just list other sources without adding commentary. 

Examples of tertiary sources

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Directories
  • Guidebooks
  • Bibliographies and digests
  • Indexing or abstracting sources

Types of resources and where to find them

When you think of the library, you probably think about books. Rightly so, as we provide access to thousands of books both on the shelf and online! 

When to use books

Books are best used for getting an overview of a topic (especially textbooks like those you may find on your reading lists). They are usually written by experts in their field.

Where books are less useful is when you're looking for the most up to date research on a topic. For this, you may want to look at journal articles. Books take a while to produce, so will not always contain the latest information. Also, make sure you're looking at the most recent edition of a book where possible (especially in areas such as Health and Law, where keeping current are particularly important). 

Use academic books to find other related sources by looking at the reference lists or bibliographies they contain.

Where to find books

Search for books (or e-books) on a topic by title or author using Library search. The below video demonstrates how to access e-books via the Library website.

Journals will give you up to date research and commentary, and are usually more current than books because they are published regularly. A journal will cover a specific subject area, and publish articles related to it. 

Most of the journals we have in the Library will be available online. 

When to use journals

As discussed above, journals are great for up to date research on a topic. You will also find that they are more technical and focused than, for example, a book. They will cover one particular topic in detail. While much shorter than books they can be quite technical and less accessible to read, but are key sources of academic information, and you should be using them as part of your research.

As with books, take a look at the reference list for related sources you may wish to read and use. Often journal articles will contain a literature review section, which can be handy for this. 

What is peer review?

Academic journals, such as those you will find in the Library, will be peer-reviewed. This is a sign of academic quality. Peer review is a process whereby, before publication, an article is reviewed by academics in the relevant field, who will suggest edits and ultimately decide if it will be approved for publication. 

Watch out: not all journals are peer-reviewed. If you are using sources such as Google Scholar, you may find content that has not undergone this process. It will probably look just the same as other academic journals, but will not have this reassurance that the information in it is reliable and good-quality. Always remember to evaluate sources before you use them. 

Where to find journals 

If you want to know about finding journals in your subject area, your Subject Guide is a good place to start. 

We also have a tool called BrowZine, which you can use to browse through some of our journal holdings by topic.

Your lecturers may also recommend key journals in your field, or include journal articles on reading lists. 

Accessing journal articles

This video shows you how to access a journal article online.

You might want to look at what colleagues in your field have been researching as part of their postgraduate work, in order to keep up to date and to identify any gaps in the field. There are a few places you can go to find them. 

Where to find dissertations and theses

Essex theses

Up until 30th September 2016, the Albert Sloman Library hold physical copies of all Ph.D. and M.Phil. these, M.Sc. (Regulation 3.5.) theses, and LL.Ms. You can find them by searching in the library catalogue (hint: you can restrict your search results to theses using the options in the sidebar or use advanced search to restrict the format).

For any after this date, go to the university's research repository

Theses from other institutions

EThOS is a service from the British Library, which allows you to search doctoral theses, some of which are available to download instantly. 

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses contains records of thousands of dissertations and theses, many with abstracts and some also full text. 

EBSCO Open Dissertations is a free electronic theses and dissertations database. 

Institutional repositories are a good place to start when looking for a particular thesis. If you found information about a thesis elsewhere you may be able to access it through the repository of the institution where it was written. 

Remember: if you can't find what you want online, please get in touch with our interlibrary loans team, who can try to help.

You might want to use statistics and data in your work, and there are a range of places you can find them.

Depending on your subject area, your Subject Guide might be a good place to start. The Library subscribes to services for statistics and data that you can use, for example Datastream or Mintel, which provide business and economic data, while other data and statistics are freely available online. 

Where to find statistics and data

What you need and where you should look will depend on your area of research. Below are just a few examples of where you may be able to find statistics and data. 

National and international statistics:

Office for National Statistics is the UK's recognised national statistical institute. Here, you can find and download data on a range of issues. 

UN data allows you to access UN statistical databases. From here, you can download data sets on UN member states. 

Eurostat is the EU's statistical office, providing key data which you can search for and download for free. 


UK Data Archive (based on our Colchester campus) is a great resource for research data in the social sciences and humanities. Take a look at the website for more information about what data they have and how you can use it. 

If you're not sure where to start, take a look at your subject guide or talk to your Academic Liaison Librarian, who can help guide you to the best resources for you. 

Depending on the type of research you're doing you may want to use either current or historic newspapers. Both can be found through the library website. 

Where to find newspapers

Nexis: Use Nexis to browse or search newspapers online. 

  • You can browse newspapers by country using the "Sources" tab.
  • Select the "Search" and "News" tabs to search newspapers and enter your keywords in the search box. You can also filter by where your keywords appear (In Headline, In Headline and Lead Paragraphs etc.) 

British Newspapers 1600-1900: Great for historical British newspapers, this site is run by the British Library. 

Google News: Good for keeping up to date with the latest news on a topic, and for searching across multiple news sources. 

Find even more online newspaper resources on the library website 

Tip: For access to even more current and archived newspapers, you can join the public library. They have a great range of online resources. 

They say a picture paints a thousand words, so you may want to try using them in your assignments, particularly if you need to do a presentation. 

Remember though, you need to make sure that you have the right to reuse any images you choose. 

The first stop for most people when searching is Google Images. This is a great tool, and will give you tons of images to choose from, but it won't automatically filter by license, so you won't have permission to reuse everything you find. Below, we'll take you through how to find images you can reuse to your heart's content!

Finding copyright free or creative commons images

So, you want to use an image in your work and you know you have to be careful about copyright. Where do you search? Here are a few options: 

  • Pixabay, Pexels and Unspalsh are great for searching for images shared using a creative commons CC0 license. This means you can use them without seeking permission or giving credit to the creator. 
  • Creative Commons search is another option for images, where you can easily filter by license type depending on what you need. 
  • Flickr can be used to search for images under a variety of licenses. Simply type in your search terms, and when you see the results choose from these license options:

Flickr license options screenshot


  • Google Images won't automatically filter, but you can specify what kind of license you are looking for in your results. In Images, select 'Tools' then 'Usage rights' and select the option you want:

Google image license filters screenshot


We're all familiar with searching for videos on YouTube, but is there anywhere else we can go to find video content for our research?

Yes! The University subscribes to Box of Broadcasts.

What is Box of Broadcasts?

Box of Broadcasts (BoB) is an off-air recording and media archive service. It allows you to record TV and radio programmes scheduled to be broadcast over the next seven days as well as retrieving programmes from the last seven days from a selected list of recorded channels. In addition, you can watch programmes from the archive (back to around 2007 for 9 key channels), create clips, and compile your favourite shows into playlists.

How do I access Box of Broadcasts?

You can access Box of Broadcasts by searching for it on the Library Search, and logging in using your University of Essex email and password.

What is grey literature?

  • Grey literature refers to works that have not been published in a traditional book or academic journal.
  • It can be created by: researchers, practitioners, charities, non-profit organisations, government bodies, professional associations, international bodies, political groups and many more. 
  • Grey literature is often (but not always) freely available online.  

Where can I find grey literature?

  • The best place to find grey literature is on website associated with organisations in your subject area. Start by making a list of organisations who are involved in your area of interest (use the list above as a guide to the type of organisations you might be looking for) and take a look at their websites. 
  • If you can't find publications easily, why not try contacting organisations or authors directly? 
  • There are some databases available online where you can find grey literature. One example is OpenGrey, which you can use to search for grey literature in a range of subject areas. 
  • Some of the open access databases will give you results for grey literature, such as OpenDOAR. More information is available in the Open Access resources guide. 
  • Remember: there may be specific places you can search for grey literature in your subject area. If you'd like more help with this, contact your Academic Liaison Librarian.

Special collections can be a valuable source of information for your research, providing materials that can't be found on the main library shelves or online.

Special Collections at Essex

The Albert Sloman Library has its own extensive special collections with a range of material. Explore it for yourself online, or contact Nigel Cochrane ( to find out more. 

Finding other special collections

Depending on your area of research, you may have to go further afield. Take a look at our list of special collections and archives resources that are available for you to search. This list is not exhaustive, so it may be worth searching for other special collections or archives related to your area of research (try using a search engine such as Google and see what you can find). 

Remember: most special collections or archives (including ours) must be accessed in person within the institution which owns it. You will usually have to make an appointment in advance to view special collections, and there may be limitations on what you can see, and what you can do with these resources. They are almost never available for borrowing. Make sure you get in contact with the institution you wish to visit well in advance to make arrangements.