If you’ve been reading my research series posts in order, you have already done a fair amount of exploratory work on your topic. You’ve identified keywords and phrases. You also have a list of potential questions about the topic to answer.
You’ll continue to refine these keywords and questions as you collect research.
Now it’s time to start collecting sources. Having a system for searching and sticking with it will help you find most of what you need.
I’ve outlined a basic system below. After you read and understand it, feel free to tweak things to suit yourself.
You will need to:
- Identify your search strategies.
- Apply those strategies in specific places.
- Collect additional sources from the sources you use.
Step One: Identify search strategies
The “search strategies” I am referring to are also called queries, which I covered in detail in the last post.
A query, search string, or search strategy is simply a collection of words you put together in a particular order so search engine algorithms can give you what you need. They are used online with search engines like Google or on databases like EBSCO Masterfile. These queries or search strings can also help search print sources like books and printed journals.
If you read my post on keywords, you should have a page or so in your notebook devoted to keywords to use and keywords to omit. Now you can combine them in different configurations for your searches.
For example, if you want to find out more about the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C., you might type in “Washington, D.C.” AND “Dupont Circle.” Or you could type in “Washington D.C. neighborhoods” AND “Dupont Circle.” That’s just for starters. Come up with as many combinations as seems reasonable to you.
Don’t let the options overwhelm you. Most likely, you won’t need to use everything you’ve written down. For example, if you are not finding “reducing diets” coming up often enough to clog your results, leave it out of your queries.
Prioritize the queries
Once you have several search strings, you can re-evaluate and refine as you go along. Choose 3-5 of these that seem really promising and use those to start with.
You may not need to use any “AND NOT” searches. An example of one of these would be:
“Muscle strength” AND “women over 50” AND NOT “exercise equipment”.
Using this string, you should get articles on muscle strength and older women, but not those that focus on exercise equipment.
Step 2: Apply the strategies
Now that you have 3-5 search strings, it’s time to find sources. Apply each query (search string) you have isolated to every search engine, database, and library resource you come across and see what turns up.
Start with search engines and experiment with different ones. You may find completely different options on Bing or Duck, Duck, Go as opposed to those you would find on Google. Take note of anything that looks promising. You can use OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, or any other note-taking app to keep track of what you find. Save the links to any information that looks promising. You may not wind up using everything, but at least you won’t waste time trying to locate something again later.
Try to get on every suitable database that you can find to type in your search strings. If you have trouble doing this on your own, go to a library for assistance. In fact, the only way to access most of these research databases is through a library account.
Apply every search string you created using the tips from the last post and the search strategies offered. Save these links to your notes app. Use doi addresses instead of database links if possible because doi links won’t change.
While you may wonder if it’s worth the effort to get to a library, this step can’t be omitted. Librarians have been trained to use search engines, databases, and print sources. Libraries absolutely have sources you can’t get to for free.
While in the library, explore a little to get a sense of how things are arranged. Try to find some things on your own. But if you get stuck, don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. Helping people find information is a librarian’s area of expertise.
Three types of libraries to explore:
Be aware that all libraries, even those of the same type, can differ wildly from one another. Research may not be a public library’s primary function. Some small libraries are independent and have very limited budgets. Their reference materials may be slim. Some don’t have a trained MLS librarian on staff to help with research. Some libraries view their mission to provide only bestsellers to their patrons.
Go there anyway. You never know what you may find.
Academic libraries are located in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Not all of them are open to the general public. Check the websites and, if necessary, call ahead.
If you are doing any sort of scholarly work or need to use scholarly works, you will need to have access to these libraries. These library collections will provide access to materials you will find nowhere else.
Some libraries exist outside the two categories above. They serve special populations and their collections may have information that can be found nowhere else. These libraries may exist in hospitals, museums, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and governments. The Library of Congress is an example of one such library.
Check online to find out the protocols for using these libraries. Call to make appointments to research in person. You can learn a lot about your options by simply talking with the librarians.
Step 3: Collecting sources from sources
Once you have found some promising sources, examine each for more sources to explore. Some can be found listed in the back of the book and others may be experts mentioned in the text.
Bibliographies and further reading
Lists of potential sources at the end of a book’s text are called various names such as “Bibliography” or “Further Reading.” These lists contain other books or articles from magazines or anthologies on the topic.
Pore over these and write down promising citations exactly as it is given. If you’re in a hurry, either take the source to a copy machine to copy these lists or take a picture of them with your phone camera.
Candidates for interviews
Write down the names of any experts mentioned and the source in which you found them. You will need to note their employer, if available, and their credentials. If the person has a middle initial, write it down. While it’s likely the person you wish to contact has changed their employment and address since the source was published, you sometimes need every scrap of information you can get to track them down.
Tracking down sources
- Bookstores, both online and brick and mortar
- Project Gutenburg if it’s no longer under copyright
Additional helpful sources
I’m familiar with the two books listed below and have found them helpful in my own work.
The online sources shared below are free, reputable reference sources. Always verify the sites you use online. Many sites use shoddy research from other sites that took their information from unreliable sources.
- Find It Fast by Robert I. Berkman
- The Little DK Handbook: Writing, Researching, Documenting, Editing, Proofreading, Revising by Anne Frances Wysocki and Dennis A. Lynch
- American Heritage Dictionary
- Black’s Law Dictionary
- C.I.A. World Factbook
- Corpus of Contemporary American English
- Corpus of Historical American English
- Dorland’s Medical Dictionary Online
- The Encyclopedia Britannica
- The Internet Archive
- Language Corner by the Columbia Journalism Review
- Legal Information Institute
- The Library of Congress
- Merck Manual Consumer Version
- The New York Public Library
- Oxford Music Online
- The Plant List
- Quote Investigator
- Statistics Help for Journalists
- Storytelling with Data
- U.S. Board on Geographic Names
- U.S. Military Rank Insignia
- Visual Dictionary Online
Only you can determine when you have collected enough sources. Keep going until you are satisfied you have all the information you need.
Have any questions or really good sources to share? Leave a comment!