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Getting Started - a Guide to How the Library Works: Intro

Step-by-step information about getting research done in the library (or wherever you happen to be).

What's This?

This tutorial is a starter kit for making the library your own. It covers the basics in brief: how to approach a research assignment, how to find books, articles, and other kinds of sources, how to make choices among the sources you find, and where you can get help along the way.

This information is also available in human form at the reference desk. You can always sit down and consult with a librarian about your project, no matter where you are in the process or how vague or specific your questions might be.

What the Experts Say

A massive study examining how students do research had some interesting findings, including these:

  • The hardest part of the research process for students? Getting started.
  • Almost all students used library databases for their resarch in addition to the web.
  • Getting a good grade was important to students working on research projects, but so was learning something new.
  • Students use many of the same strategies for real-world research as they do for college papers.
  • Students tend to find a process that works for them and stick with it. That suggests that developing a good strategy that makes efficient use of llibrary resources in your first year of college is time well invested. It may sometimes feel like it takes too much time to figure it all out, especially with that chemistry or macro test coming up, but your senior self will thank you in a few years.

Can You Put That in the Form of a Question?

For many, if not most, research assignments, you need to do more than understand a topic. You need to have some central idea about it, a story to tell or a thesis that is supported by evidence.

One way to do this is to turn your topic into a question. Chances are your question will change as your understanding of the topic deepens, but it should help guide your search to have a specific research question in mind.

How do I Begin?

That all depends on what you're trying to do. Read your assignment carefully and think about what steps you might want to take next. You probably will need to explore a topic area before you decide exactly where you want to go with it. Be sure to take advantage of the superb Writing Center tutors (who can help you think through an assignment) and the reference librarians (who can point you toward the best information resources).

to do list

photo courtesy of Joe Philipson

How to Decode an Assignment

The word "research" means many different things. Research assignments might involve reporting on a topic, reviewing the state of research in a given area, reading and critically analyzing a text (in which case you may be directed to "discuss," "compare and contrast," or "react to" the text) or investigating and taking a stand on an issue. You might be asked to generate an original thesis or to conduct field research (interviews, surveys, experiments, or first-hand observations), using information you find in the library to support and frame your ideas. Read your assignment carefully and see if you can answer these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • To what extent should I bring my own ideas to the project? Do I need to present an original theory, argue a point of view, or am I primarily sythesizing and organizing information in order to report on it?
  • How much evidence (or information) will I need to gather?
  • What kinds of evidence (or sources) am I expected to use?
  • What should the finished project look like?

If you aren't able to answer these questions, ask the teacher for clarification - but only after you've read the assignment carefully.

Doing research projects takes time. Look at your calendar and set realistic goals. Be sure you don't spend all your time finding sources - plan time into your schedule to read them and to write!


Focusing Your Topic

You will have to spend some time mapping out the territory of a topic, sorting out what information is available and what different angles have been taken by others. This is often the most difficult part of the research process - and the most frustrating because you don't feel as if you're making much headway. Try these strategies to make the most of this part of the process:

  • Make a list of possible issues to research. Use class discussions, texts, personal interests, conversations with friends, and discussions with your teacher for ideas. Start writing them down - you'd be surprised how much faster they come once you start writing.
  • Map out the topic by finding out what others have had to say about it. This is not the time for in-depth reading, but rather for a quick scan. Many students start with a Google search, but you can also browse the shelves where books on the topic are kept and see what controversies or issues have been receiving attention. Search a database for articles on your topic area and sort out the various approaches writers have taken. Look for overviews and surveys of the topic that put the various schools of thought or approaches in context. You may start out knowing virtually nothing about your topic, but after scanning what's out there you should have several ideas worth following up.
  • Invent questions. Do two things you come across seem to offer interesting contrasts? Does one thing seem intriguingly connected to something else? Is there something about the topic that surprises you? Do you encounter anything that makes you wonder why? Do you run into something that makes you think, "no way! That can't be right." Chances are you've just uncovered a good research focus.
  • Draft a proposal for research. Sometimes a teacher will ask you for a formal written proposal. Even if it isn’t required, it can be a useful exercise. Write down what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it's important. You may well change your topic entirely by the time its finished, but writing down where you plan to take your research at this stage can help you clarify your thoughts and plan your next steps.
  • Talk it over. Tell your roommate or some other willing victim what you're working on. Sometimes just explaining the idea can help you clarfiy for yourself what direction seems most interesting.


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