Students very often begin with a Google search to get a sense of what's out there and what different approaches are being taken to a given topic. Wikipedia articles are often useful, but librarians can also point you toward specialized reference works such as the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics or the Encyclopedia of Sociology that do a great job of filling you in on the scholarly aspects of a topic before you dive in any deeper.
Serendipity plays a big role in research, so long as you put yourself where it's most likely to happen. When looking for books, you may want to start by searching the catalog - but once you find a book that looks promising, browse the section of shelves around it. Our library uses the Library of Congress system that, in the same way as the more familiar Dewey Decimal system, puts books on the same topic near each other. You may want to browse in more than one section: the general collection, oversized, reference, or for international studies the Hasselquist Room. Each of these sections has its own A-Z set of Library of Congress system call numbers.
Some topics are more easily browsed than others. For example, books by and about a particular writer are shelved together, but books on interdisciplinary subjects such as environmental science may be in several places. Check the subject guides for a list of browsing areas by major.
Keep an eye out for current books as you scan the shelves. One easy tip for doing that is to look at the call number labels. In recent years, call numbers end with the year of publication. This makes it easy to see if a book is current without having to open it up and look at the back of the title page.
As you decide which sources to look at more closely think about these ideas.
Be sure you do some skimming before you print anything off or haul books back to your dorm room. Quite often, a source that seems to be exactly on your topic turns out to be not very helpful after all. You don't want to discover that when you're sitting down to write a paper that's due tomorrow.
Until you know a bit about your topic, you can't narrow your focus. Try one of these strategies to get the big picture:
Many students turn to Wikipedia for background information because it's easy to use, it's vast, and it has become so popular its articles often turn up within the first few links of a Web search. For some topics, particularly in the realm of popular culture, the articles can be uniquely valuable. However, there are two things to bear in mind.
First, because authorship is not limited to experts, but is open to anyone, there are times the articles are written by enthusiastic amateurs. Some articles are better than others.
Second, the quality varies considerably depending on who is interested in editing articles on a particular topic. Quite a number of scientists, lawyers, academics, and even college students have spent time improving articles on topics they understand well, but other subjects may have only skimpy articles. Apart from subjects, the Wikmedia Foundation that manages Wikipedia has expressed concern about the lack of diversity among editors, including a small percentage of editors who are women, which some feel results in uneven coverage of subjects of interest to or about women.
In general, Wikipedia is often a great place to get basic background information and often will provide links to useful sources. However, it is good for background only, not as a major source for a paper. Even its founder, Jimmy Wales, cautions students against using Wikipedia for research papers. He told a reporter, "If you are reading a novel that mentions the Battle of the Bulge, for instance, you could use Wikipedia to get a quick basic overview of the historical event to understand the context. But students writing a paper about the battle should hit the history books." In 2005, the prestigious science journal, Nature, caused a stir when it published an analysis that claimed science articles in Wikipedia contained an average of four mistakes, whereas the Encylopaedia Britannica contained three - something Britannica hotly denied. Nevertheless, for college research you should go beyond general encyclopedias, whether online or in print.
Librarians are here to help!