General Research: Exploring Sources

May 6, 2021

In this post, we’ll get started with exploring research sources to help you begin idea-gathering.

If you read my overview on the research process, you’ve got a notebook or app for recording random thoughts and sources you come across. In it, you’ve already written down what you know about the topic and what people you know personally and through social media had to say about it.

Exploring sources

This first step is sometimes called “preliminary research.” While going through this step, keep your note-taking device handy. Exploring sources readily available on the topic will either create a base for your further explorations or it will convince you that this topic is not for you. Either way, it’s worth doing well.

For this step you want to:

  1. Schedule time
  2. Use search engines
  3. Find background sources
  4. Find at least one good book
  5. Skim the book(s)

Let’s look at each of these more closely.

Schedule Time

If you’re one of those people who are always putting off to tomorrow what could be done today, there’s a simple way to deal with that. Schedule it. You’ll be surprised at how much you can get done in fifteen minutes.

Search engines

If you type your topic into Google, you will immediately notice a problem. Millions of hits will come up. Some of these will be of poor quality. Some will be worthless for your purposes. And many will contain too much information to dive into. You may find a few helpful things, but much of it will discuss specific issues that you’re not ready for yet.

Write down topics you don’t need. This will save time when you start collecting sources because you will be able to eliminate these items from the search. For example, you want to do research on patriotism and you keep getting hits on the New England Patriots football team. Write down “football” under topics to omit when searching. I’ll explain how to use this info in my next post.

Background sources

You want to begin with the short and the general.

Wikipedia is a good place to start for a quick overview. Don’t take official notes on the article itself. Instead, note any reference sources that look promising. You don’t have to write them all down because you can always go back to it later to look for others that may be useful. Do make note of anything in the article that you may want to keep in mind to verify later.

After you’ve done this, make a quick trip to your nearest library. Encyclopedias and reference sources in a library will give you verified background information. Do not hesitate to ask a librarian for help locating these sources if you need to.

As you read these sources, jot down anything that seems important or that surprises you. Jot down the name of the source you’re using. See if they have further reading sections or bibliographies at the end of the articles themselves. You’ll want to take notes on these down as well.

Locating books

For in-depth information, you will need to read at least one good book.

To find books:

  • Use search engines for the topic and add “books.” I taught my students to type it in this way:  [topic AND books]. Ignore the brackets, just type what’s between them. Use quotation marks around any phrase in which you want to keep words together with nothing in between and in a particular order (“brain nutrition”). Jot down the titles of any that look interesting.
  • Ask for recommendations on social media groups.
  • Use your library’s online catalog. Be sure to ask a librarian for help if you need it.

Skimming sources

To skim:

  • Remember you are looking for the overview and the big ideas related to the topic.
  • Look over the table of contents first.
  • Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter.
  • If a paragraph looks like something that needs more investigation, read the first and last sentence of that paragraph.

Conversely, you might find you want or need to do a close reading. If you do, take notes as you read. Don’t waste time backtracking. Write down the author, title, place of publication, publisher, and copyright date of the source (usually it’s on the back of the title page). If you copy anything down word-for-word be sure to put it in quotation marks. If you either note something that’s not common knowledge or quote something, always record the page number.

Stage one is done

After a few days to a few weeks, take your notebook out and read over what you’ve recorded. Note any new ideas that come up. In the next post, we’ll explore how to find keywords and develop questions to guide your research.

Do you have any helpful hints for this step of the process or stories about researching you’d like to share? Do you have questions about the process?





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