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

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

The Big Picture

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.


Skimming Sources

As you decide which sources to look at more closely think about these ideas.

  • Is it current enough? Use the year of publication on the call number or in a database to help narrow your options.
  • Is it scholarly enough - but not too technical? When looking through articles with abstracts in a database, skim the abstract to see if at least some of the article is understandable. Focus first on the first and last lines of the abstract, then look more closely if it seems interesting. When looking at magazine and newspaper articles, check the length. If it's less than 400 words or one page or less, it may be too insubstantial to be very helpful.
  • Is at least part of the source of interest? When you see a book on the shelf that has potential, take it off the shelf and skim the table of contents. Or, if you have a specific enough subject, see if it's covered in the index. You don't have to read a book in its entirety to find the good bits.

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.

Scanning the Landscape of Your Topic

Until you know a bit about your topic, you can't narrow your focus. Try one of these strategies to get the big picture:

  • Search Google and see what turns up. While you may not find any sources that you actually use for your research it is one way to quickly put your finger on the pulse of contemporary popular culture. It does not work as well for topics such as literary analysis, Biblical studies, psychology - or any other field of study in which popular approaches to questions diverge widely from scholarly approaches.
  • Put your topic into a different version of Google, Google Scholar. You can limit your search to recent publications using options on the left-hand side of the screen. Notice that you can see how often a particular work has been cited and can click on that link to see who has been working in the same area more recently. You can also see which of the articles are available through the library. A drawback to this approach is that the results may be too specialized for you to see patterns easily.
  • Put your topic into Academic Search Premier, one of the library's databases. Again, the purpose isn't to find sources you will use, but it should reveal different ways to think about a topic. This is particularly helpful if your topic is scholarly because this database indexes core journals in a variety of subjects as well as newspapers and popular magazines. You can even switch between magazines and scholarly journals using a handy link on the left-hand side of your search. You may also want to select a range of current years using the handy date slider on the right to focus on up-to-date sources.
  • Want a really good tip? Use the library's hidden treasures: specialized reference books. In far more depth than Encylopaedia Britannica or with more expertise than most articles in Wikipedia, these scholarly resources provide excellent and expert overviews of topics and - as a bonus - will tell you which sources are the most valuable ones. A few minutes browsing a reference work will give you lots of ideas. For example, the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics includes overview articles on bioethics, animal rights, fetal research, and the right to die. To get a sense of what reference books are available, take a look at our subject guides - or swing by the reference desk for a personalized list of suggestions. There's gold in them thar reference collection stacks.

What About Wikipedia?

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.

If you'd like to know more about Wikipedia, check out this article in The Atlantic. Or for a politically-barbed, satirical take, see how it was covered by The Colbert Report.

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