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Lesson 2: Starting Research with Primary Sources

Aerial Photograph of Stony Brook University, c1962.
From the University Archives, Photograph Collection, SBU Libraries.

2.1 The Research Cycle
2.2 Formulating a Research Question

Understanding the research cycle and developing a researchable question are key when starting a project. These steps can help you establish a plan of action.

2.1 The Research Cycle

These guided questions can be applied or adapted depending on the scope, nature, and scale of your project. 

1. Conceptual Stage: Identifying Primary Sources
You determine the types and formats of primary sources, and differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources.

2. Find and Access Stage: Locating Materials
You identify locations of materials, use effective search strategies, and understand how to access primary sources.

3. Reading, Understanding, and Summarizing Stage: Examining and Synthesizing
You start to examine, synthesize, and communicate about primary sources. This practical step includes accessing and handling materials.  

Questions to consider:
Can the source be located through a catalog or database?
Is it digitized?
Is the collection open for research?
Is an appointment necessary?
Is special handling of the material required?
Can I photograph the item?

4. Analytical Stage: Interpreting, Analyzing, and Evaluating Sources
You assess if a primary source aligns with the goal of an assignment; analyze potential bias, audience, and gaps in historical records; evaluate the format and physical condition of primary sources; and understand the significance of preserving this content. 

This stage includes questioning, evaluating, interpreting, synthesizing, and interrogating. "Silences" are gaps or missing information in historical records. Causes of a gap may include: not being able to write; records not being considered valuable; and suppression of records by a dominant culture. 

Questions to consider:
How was a source created?
Who created it?
When was it created?
What is the historical context?
Who was the audience?

5. Ethical Stage: Understanding
You begin to understand cultural context, laws, privacy rights, copyright, and intellectual property. 

Questions to consider:
How might my research impact the creator?
How do I access a work?
How do I quote a source?
Can this source be published? 

6. Theoretical Stage: Creating New Knowledge
You explore evidence, authority, power, authenticity, materiality, biases, and absences. 

Questions to consider:
Where is the source geographically located?
What is the scope and mission of the repository?
What is represented in the collection and what is not?
Is there an absence or gap in a collection - and why?
Who is represented in a collection and who is not - and why?
Who collected the source?
What societal power structures exist or might be at play in the presentation of the source?

2.2 Formulating a Research Question

Developing a concise question establishes the foundation for your research. Here are a few suggestions to consider as your start the research process.

1. Think of a broad topic or issue and then develop a more narrow, specific question on that topic that requires additional research and investigation to answer. Consider framing it with: who, what, how, or why.

2. Conduct preliminary research to determine what has already been written on the topic and if sources exist that relate to  your research question.

3. Assess the scale of the project: make sure it can be completed in the amount of time you have been given.


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