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Gen Ed 1123: Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East

Tertiary Sources: What they are and why they matter


According to the definition in your Gen Ed 1123 Writing Guide, tertiary sources are publications that "collect," "distil" and synthesize primary and secondary sources.

In disciplines like history, primary sources provide immediate or first-hand records of an event or phenomenon. Produced just ahead of, during, or just after this event or phenomenon, they exist closest in time to what they bear witness to.

Tertiary sources are the furthest out. They come much later in the information-generation process, after a substantial number of secondary sources (critical studies of the first-hand evidence) has been produced. 

Tertiary sources can help us make sense of large bodies of information because they identify patterns, trends and tendencies, suggest future research directions, and note remaining knowledge gaps.

In other words, they help us see the forest in the trees.  

It may seem counterintuitive to start at two removes from primary evidence, but the tertiary source approach to topic generation can give you the framework, general understanding, and perspective that's sometime necessary to proceed.  

Think about the reasons you use Wikipedia, perhaps the world's most famous tertiary source: for background, for search language, for the bibliographies, which can give you research leads.  Much more nuanced types of tertiary sources can satisfy those needs in your Gen Ed 1123 work: they're described under the tabs, above.

Best Bet: Oxford Islamic Studies Center


OISO compiles authoritative, timely, and balanced scholarship from a global perspective on the history, peoples, beliefs, individuals, and cultures that constitute the world of Islam.  Here's why we recommend you start with it:

  • It  allows you to browse or search approximately 5000 encyclopedia entries on every aspect of Islam, as well as biographies written by subject experts and commentary and scholarly discussions excerpted from important and influential books.
  • It provides you with translated texts for more than 150 key primary source documents on Islam (which you can search by region, topic, or era). 
  • Its more than 600 Images and Maps offer visual perspectives on the historical and geopolitical dimensions of Islam. 
  • It includes a Timeline documenting over 1,000 historic moments in Islamic history—births, deaths, reigns, wars, and the like.The timeline of Islamic history can be viewed alone, or side-by-side with a timeline of general world history events at corresponding periods.
  • A set of related learning resources, which include "Focus On" essays, Thematic Guides and a curated list of web links.

Other Resources for Background and Context


Companions, handbooks, and stand-alone annotated bibliographies are often designed for consultation (rather than cover to cover reading).

They supply ready-to-hand information, illustration, explanations,  and trusted assessments of complicated ideas and events. Their value is in their ability to collect and highlight research findings that have significantly shaped understanding or fueled further study and debate.

Certain publishers (like Cambridge University Press, Oxford, and Blackwell, for example) are known for the consistently high quality and reliability of the handbooks and companions they produce.

These publication types -- usually signaled as such in their titles -- exist for most academic subjects and on all sorts of finely-grained topics.

We've listed some particularly useful examples below.

SEARCH TIP FOR NEXT TIME: Adding the term "companion" or "handbook" or "bibliography" (or even "introduction") to a keyword search in HOLLIS is one way to surface them.

Online; view table of contents.

Online; see, especially, "Part IV:" Interpretations and Intellectual Traditions" and "Part V: "Contemporary Readings"

Online; see especially, "Contemporary Readings"


For all of its practical utility and hard-won credibility, Wikipedia might be best considered your go-to general encyclopedia as a Harvard student.

In an academic environment, however, and for classes like Gen Ed 1123, where authority is measured according to a different set of standards, consider substituting Wikipedia (or complementing it) with a specialized subject encyclopedia.

Subject encyclopedias derive some of their authority from the publishing houses from which they originate, but more importantly, from the network of named and credentialed scholars who supply their content. Their own research has established their reputations as experts and trusted guides to the important breakthrough moments or intellectual markers in a discipline.

By nature and purpose, a subject encyclopedia isn't designed to break new research ground, but rather, to provide the consensus view, of what researchers know, at a particular moment in time, about issues, theories, individuals, historical periods, scientific conundrums, intellectual or social movements, and more.

Some of the most respected ones for Middle Eastern studies are identified below.

SEARCH TIP FOR NEXT TIME: Adding the term "encyclopedia" to any broad keyword search in HOLLIS is one way to identify this publication type.

Making Sources Matter: Finding your entry point


The experts at the Harvard Writing Program offer some excellent tips on how to use sources to locate your own position ("voice") within the scholarly conversation. 

Hover over each tip for more advice on common ways to establish what's at stake:

1. Challenge an initial read.
2. Challenge a published view.
3. Explain an inconsistency, gap, or ambiguity.
4. Explain unexpected conclusions.
5. Intervene in a debate.
6. Point out how a piece of evidence encapsulates a larger issue.
7. Point out how an insignificant moment is actually critical.
8. Point out the limits of the existing literature.
9. Point out a problem others don’t usually see.

Source: Harvard Writes: What's At Stake