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How to do research in a library

How to do research in a library: 6 steps

Jan 09, 2013
Though technology has definitely changed the way we do research; libraries are still regarded as reliable and useful sources for many students and researchers everywhere. Aside from the handy computers available, various books, encyclopedias, documents, reports, and archives have their home in the library as well. These, along with electronic databases, are where students and researchers go to obtain the information they need.
If new to academic research, the whole process of finding information in the library may seem a bit intimidating. Because the biggest hurdle is not so much reading and reviewing the materials but going about the task of collecting and gathering them. When developing an action plan for library research the first (and sometimes not the most obvious) step would be to conduct a bit of preliminary research. Doing this initially will help you to further refine your topic as well as gain some much needed background information on what exactly you will be spending so much time studying.

Step 1: Refine your topic

When you first settle on a research topic you may feel that all your topic work is done. This is generally not the case. Unless you are extremely well versed in the subject area and familiar with the literature and research previously conducted, it may be difficult for you to know whether or not your topic is a good one. This is where preliminary research comes in. After obtaining a suitable topic you should then start by doing some basic information searching to (a) make yourself more comfortable with the topic, (b) find out whether or not the topic you chose makes sense for the subject as well as fits well into the information that is currently available and (c) guide you to making the appropriate corrections and revisions if necessary.
To begin refining your topic at the local library you'll want to get a hold of some general books that will assist you in this process.

Preliminary reference materials

  1. General dictionaries - You may want to look up the meaning of a word that you selected to gain a better understanding of it in the context of a sentence or any issues connected to it
  2. General encyclopedias - These can definitely assist you in obtaining some basic information on your topic. It may help to read or skim through a general article first before moving on to more in-depth titles
  3. Subject-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries - In addition to the first two mentioned, these will do an even better job of informing you about your topic and helping you decide on how best to revise and refine your topic

Step 2: Develop a research strategy

Once you have undertaken the task of refining your topic with the libraries' resources its important to then map out how you will obtain the more in-depth sources needed to accomplish your goal. The library is a vast places with thousands of titles, online and offline; so its necessary to prepare yourself with a research strategy before embarking on this journey.
So what exactly is a research strategy? Though the definition may differ from person to person essentially its a map or a plan for obtaining the resources you need. And the first step involves creating a handy list of keywords for your topic.

List appropriate keywords

Since most libraries today have an online catalog for locating items it's important to know how to it works. Similar to a search engine the libraries' catalog uses a keyword search system. To retrieve the most relevant and useful sources with this system, you'll want to think of different ways to explain your topic. For instance, one topic may have twenty or more keywords that can be generated from it.

Identify primary and secondary sources of information

Primary sources of information are first-hand accounts of events or happenings including interviews and diary entries. Secondary resources include things such as books and articles, and are based off of primary sources or other secondary sources. Identifying which sources will be most helpful to you in your research endeavor will help you when it comes time to search and collect information.

Step 3: Obtain materials/gather resources

Now that you've narrowed down your plan as best as possible its time to gather all of your data. This step is simple enough. There are a few places that you can look to, to search for the information you need.

Library catalog

You can use the library catalog to search for potential resources using the keyword list you created. Generally when searching for items the results that are produced will be based on relevancy. So even though hundreds of results may pop up on the screen it should be safe to assume that the most relevant results will be the first ones you see. Once you locate the best options for you, record the call number on a sheet of paper and go book hunting.
*Tip: When locating a book in the library simply browse the neighboring books surrounding it to see if any of them meet your needs. Like books are shelved together so you may easily find additional resources without traveling too far.

Library research guides

Some, but not all libraries, have very helpful student resources developed by staff librarians on their websites. Some of these helpful materials include research guides. These guides are useful because they are divided by subject and outline specific catalogs, databases, and other areas to search for when working on a particular topic.

Electronic databases

Some universities and colleges are affiliated with certain online databases such as Jstor and Ebscohost; which provide thousands of scholarly articles on various topics.*These databases are also accessible without a university or college affiliation.

Step 4: Decide which materials to keep

Its very important to use a critical eye when determining which information is relevant for your topic and which is not. This is because you can literally come across dozens of titles that may be marginally connected to your topic but not necessarily useful in answering your research question. Keeping in mind that you will be reading through the materials you select, you want to be careful to ensure that they are relevant and suitable for your topic as well as reliable and credible.

Step 5: Record your sources

Many students and researchers alike are aware of the importance of source cards. Not only does proper recording help you to better organize all of your information but it also helps to safeguard you against plagiarism and improper referencing. Most research papers will require a styling guide such as MLA, APA, or Chicago, and such guides require proper referencing of sources as well as in-text citations. Therefore its important to record all of the necessary information for each source (such as author, title, publisher, publication date etc.) each and every time.

Step 6: Take concentrated notes

The last and final step of library research is to excel in your note taking. Great notes lead to great writing. Important concepts, points, or clarifications should be noted and explained in your own words to prepare yourself for constructing your first draft. Also practicing paraphrasing and summarizing of material will hopefully better equip you to take all of the information you've obtained and properly synthesize it into your own unique and original research writing.
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