42 People as Sources

Teaching & Learning, University Libraries and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how personal interviews can be important evidence in academic research.
  • Recognize the value that experts in a field of study can bring to new research.



People don’t just create the sources we use. They are actually sources themselves. Most of us use people as sources all the time in our private lives, such when we ask a friend for a restaurant recommendation or ask whether or not a movie is worth watching. But you probably aren’t using people as sources very often in your assignments–unless you are a journalism major, of course. However, learning how to use people as sources can be valuable in college and later in your career.

In fact, research indicates that employers such as Battelle, Nationwide Insurance, Microsoft, the FBI, the Smithsonian, the Port of Los Angeles, SS&G Financial Services, and Marriott International have been dissatisfied with their new hires’ inability to gather information by talking with real people. They’ve found new hires unwilling or unprepared to ask the experienced employee down the hall or the expert across town for information to solve a problem.

This, getting some experience using people as sources is likely to help you not just with a current research assignment but with your work in the future.

Important: Who’s an “Expert”?

Experts aren’t only researchers with Ph.D.s doing academic work. The question when trying to decide who can be a source is really always, who can speak with authority about any part of the subject? And the answer to that question is always contextual, a kind of “it depends.”

People can speak with authority for different reasons. According to the framework for information literacy, they can have subject expertise (say, having done scholarship in the field), societal position (maybe a public office or other relevant work title), or special experience (say, living or working in a particular situation of interest or having participated in an historical event).

For instance, people who have had firsthand experience living or working with a situation (say, a survivor of school shooting if your topic is on that subject) you are studying can have a unique perspective unavailable elsewhere. And it’s that up-close, firsthand view of the situation that gives them the authority that you and your audience respond to.

Of course, such sources have to be evaluated just like any other. Could they be biased? Like any source, yes. We just have to keep that possible bias in mind as we use the information from such a source. That’s part of exercising the critical thinking that research assignments are famous for producing.

Potentially biased or not, sometimes a source’s firsthand experience can’t be beat. And recognizing what they offer can help us open up to diverse ideas and worldviews that we would otherwise miss. Don’t be surprised if this kind of source takes you off in completely new directions with your assignment, ones that turn out to be much more interesting than those you were following before. For many researchers, finding sources that really open up a topic like that is one of the most rewarding—and fun—things about doing research.

Some Examples of People as Sources

Research Question Potential Person as Source Potential Person as Source
How are tools originally developed for medicine, geology, and manufacturing used to explore paintings and sculptures? An art conservator who uses those tools that you read about in the newspaper or other source The person who invented one of the tools on the floor of the factory where he works
Why do most people who qualify for food at food banks not ask for food? A local food bank director A person (perhaps a fellow student) who qualifies but does not ask for food at a food bank
How and why do city and county governments brand themselves? An official in such a city or county who has been involved in branding decisions The director of a company that designs branding for cities and counties

You can interview a person as a source on the phone, in email, with video chat, or face-to-face. You’ll need to:

  • Pay attention when reading other sources so you can identify whom to contact and know what they could have to offer.
  • Prepare by learning enough about your topic so you can ask appropriate questions, know what your expert has done in relation to that topic so you don’t seem ignorant of their contribution, and know how to contact them. You might also want to do a practice interview with a friend.
  • Contact your source to see if they are willing to talk with you and when that would be convenient. Then follow through.
  • Take copious notes during the interview.

Use good interview techniques, such as trying to put them at ease, using active listening techniques to encourage them to talk, asking follow up questions, and thanking them at the end of the interview.

Citing People as Sources

Like other sources, people should be cited in your research final product, depending on the citation style you’re using. MLA, APA, and Chicago Style will all differ, so you will need to confirm with your instructor which style you need to use.

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, Teaching & Learning University Libraries, CC BY 4.0


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People as Sources Copyright © by Teaching & Learning, University Libraries and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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