Research Notes

What are the documentary Sources?

Documents abound in everyday life. They compromise pieces of written printed or electronic material that contain information of some sort. Oxford dictionary (2017) defines a document as ‘something written, inscribed, which furnishes evidence or information upon the subject, as a manuscript, titled-deed, coin…’. This definition indicates that a document can take many forms. It also identifies the important characteristic that a documents’ content is information or evidence.

Therefore, documents are important, not only in business and personal matters but also in research of most kinds, and certainly in research in social sciences. Paper sources, as they have traditionally been, might be in the form of personal letters, official records legal papers, statistical data sources, records of public speeches, and newspaper articles. Also includes academic papers that document the work of researchers in many fields of scholarship that provide a wealth of information that can be widely used in research. Though some documents are subjective in nature, others are authentic, reliable, and authoritative, and thus they are used widely in research.

  1. Type of Documents

The two basic classifications of the documents are in fairly common use. Wilkinson and Bhandarkar (1977) specify the two categories, primary and secondary documents, though the destination is not always clear-cut.

Primary Documents: these documents are compiled by writers either at the time of occurrence or even afterward and provide first-hand information. Some of the examples of primary documents are letters personal diaries, autobiographies, some statistical data and reports, and particularly important for researchers, academic research journal articles.

Secondary documents: These are the documents that are derived from primary, contemporary, or retrospective sources. Some examples of secondary documents are historical studies based on actual documents, studies based on census data, survey reports, and statistical digests of many kinds. There is a vast wealth of such sources.

Documents can also be classified as personal/private or public/official documents.

Personal documents; these documents tend to give an insight into a writer’s character, patterns of behavior, and thinking. Such documents provide first-personal descriptions by individuals of their own actions, experiences, and beliefs. They are generated by writers’ own initiatives and usually reflect the personal experience of the authors.

Public and official documents. These documents are of many different types and all readers will be familiar with the variety of sources. Almost all public bodies generate such material, which is usually impersonal in nature. The data may be primary or secondary. The authenticity of materials depends upon the specific sources, Government sources usually being considered reliable. They are sometimes referred to as mass commercial documents (Dwivedi, 1998)

While all the personal documents are primary in nature, public and official documents can be primary or secondary.

2. Personal and Private documents

From the point of the most researchers in management and the social sciences, the two most important kinds of personal documents are letters, including memoranda, and diaries.

 Letters and Memoranda

Letters and memoranda are likely to have two principal issues. Firstly, they can provide valuable background reading at the outset of a research project, giving information about the context within which the research is set. Knowledge of this context is very valuable in the process of defining the boundaries of eth research and setting the research objectives.

Secondly, later in the research process, when decisions are made about who needs to be consulted in the data gathering process, letters and memos can provide information on the views of the important state holders about issues connected with the research subject. This knowledge can provide guidance in the formulation of interview schedules and in designing questionnaires or other research instruments. Nevertheless, we feel it necessary to point out to the reader that access to these personal documents is far from beings and automatic process.


Diaries have a different purpose. The most important diaries are usually those written by the researcher him/herself/ although we use computers a great deal, there is much to be said for having a notebook or day journal with us the whole the time that we are engaged in research. This little document can be the repository in which a researcher records all manner of ideas as they occur, all manner of observations as they are made, and all manner of remarks a heard. Such diary entries can be invaluable while formulating supplementary questions during interviewing.  They can give valuable pointers while seeking secondary data sources within an organization. When the research thesis is being written a personal diary is a rich source of material for reflecting on the research process itself. We urge first-time researchers to develop the habit of keeping a research diary.

Limitations of personal and private documents

For a number of reasons, personal documents need to be used with care. The very fact that they have a personal source means that it would be unwise to treat the material within them as objectives data. It is possible that the writers responsible had less than perfect knowledge and memory of the situations they were writing about. The writers may have strongly held views that could have impaired the validity of their personal documents. So it is advisable to be cautious about their authenticity.  

3. Public and official documents

Under public and official documents, there is a vast range of material that has potential application for research in general. Public documents of many sorts are available for addressing specific problems or interests. For example, minutes of meeting in many departments within the organization, files of correspondence in all departments, and policy documents at various levels. However, in much academic research carried out by students of management and the social sciences, the most important category of public documents is academic literature.  There are six other sources of public documents reports and professional publications, business records, official statistical records, video/audio tapes, historical records, and newspapers.

Reports and professional publications

There are reports by companies, consultancy firms, professional bodies, government departments, and agencies of many kinds, some at the national level, and others at the local level. It is particularly helpful to the researcher if they carry an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or International Standard Serial Number (ISSN).

Business records

We refer to the private records of many sorts that are the lifeblood of business organizations. They are created in the course of day-to-day business by the department of an organization. For example, records of financial nature, control data records, usually of a statistical nature, records with data concerning customers, suppliers, employees, etc…

Official statistical records

Statistical records, when emanating from government sources are, prima facie, generally considered to provide accurate and reliable information. Nevertheless, it is important for users of such data to make themselves well informed about the methods used to collect the data, including definitions of all specified categories, and the methods used to process the raw data. Examples of statistical records include government surveys, census data, and reports, government economic surveys of various sorts, consumption, and distribution, marital status by age and sex, and trade.  

Video/audio tapes

Some interviews of particular importance are often not transcribed into a written format (because of the expense) but are recorded on audio or videotape. Radio and television channels make extensive use of such recordings and are sometimes willing to make them available. Documentary material in this format can be valuable in research.

 Historical records

Public records, documents for future consultation and research and research use, are good sources of usually reliable information. On almost all occasions, official business at any level is on record for future reference and research. Most public bodies in many countries are required to ensure that detailed records are maintained of meetings of all kinds. Such records include minutes of all meetings. In earlier years, access to such records might have involved a researcher in considerable travel, but with the increasing availability of such material on websites, historical materials are now much more readily available.  For example, a speech of His Majesty the King and Prime Minister.


Compared with other types of documents newspapers might seem to be a poor relation to public documentary sources. The quality of writing is very variable and the subject matter is often very trivial. Nevertheless, a researcher should not disregard these documentary sources.

4. Academic Literature

It is not possible to overstate the importance of academic literature in the process of carrying out academic research. All Universities standing the world over assess thesis and dissertations submitted by students on the criterion of how well the writing engages with academic literature. All prestigious academic journals specify instruments for prospective authors, and it is usual to find phrases such as “linkage to the literature is essential in papers submitted for publication”.it is important to stress, that not all academic documentary sources are of equal standing. The three-way division or pecking order of academic documentary sources are; academic journals, academic books, and other documentary sources.

Academic Journals- are placed first because these documents compromise primary sources that certain first-hand accounts of research. Furthermore, they are subjected to a review. Many academic journals state their review process on the cover of each issue.

It is not just for findings that these sources are valuable to researchers. It is also important for a researcher to read about the research methods used; first-time researchers can learn much about research methodology in this way.

Furthermore, they are extremely valuable for the references to the academic literature that they contain. Obviously, very recently published journals will be especially valuable because they will refer to recent literature. Of course, not all journals are of equal standing in academe, and there are usually many journals that are potentially relevant to any given research project.

Academic Books- are also valuable, though in two-way different ways. Firstly, they are not likely to contain any of the most recently published research, they usually cover a much wider field than any single research journal. Secondly, they usually provide much more background to the subjects covered, and they are able to discuss the relative merits of different concepts, models, and theories at greater length than is possible in research journals.

Other Documentary Sources

Other documentary sources compromise a miscellany of documents that may have some relevance. There may be periodicals and reports published by professional institutions and sometimes circulated free to members. Such societies also publish specialist monographs from time to time. There is a further class of documentary sources known as abstracting journals that provide access to abstracts of journals and books in specific subject areas.  Under the other documentary sources searching for academic material consists of browsing, online catalogs, and abstracts.

 Browsing-it may sound inefficient to simply browse amongst the library stacks, taking off the shelves this or that book strikes you as interesting, but most researchers have done so at some time. Most academic libraries around the world operate some form of the decimal system of classification, so you need to be aware of those codes that are relevant to your research.

Online catalogs- it is now de rigeur for academic libraries to have computer databases of their book and journal stock. Furthermore, it may be the case that several academic libraries within a specific geographical region have a unified system. Thus, research students can specify research for a terminal. Usually, it is possible to search for books and journals by authors, title, keywords, or class number.

Abstracts-  are valuable because they provide summaries of articles, books, and specialist pamphlets. Many different abstracts specializing in a particular subject area are available, so it is worthwhile to find out what I available by consulting a librarian. An abstract is also available online.

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