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How to Do Library Research

This set of pages has information on how to do library research. In all cases, once you have located sources, be sure to evaluate them, using the evaluation guides.

Asking Good Research/Reference Questions

  1. Be Specific
  2. Mention what you are going to do with the information. For example,
    • a. you intend to write a summary paragraph
    • b. or give a short/long speech
    • c. or write a 3, 5, 8, 10, 15, 20 page paper, thesis, dissertation
  3. If for a class, identify the course and level
  4. Be prepared: Show up with something to write with and write on.

Question Tips

At CSU there is no longer a reference desk, but there is a Help Desk where you can ask your questions. Advanced questions should be referred to one of the subject specialist librarians (or you may contact the appropriate librarian directly yourself; Research Assistance helps you identify yours by subject, college, department, or name).

The staff member at the Help Desk (a few are librarians) may ask you a number of questions. This is so he or she can identify what you need. Sometimes researchers don't ask for what they really want, so they are sent to sources that don't answer their questions. They then feel frustrated or wonder if the staff member gave them decent help, when there was a miscommunication between the researcher and the staff member. If there is miscommunication, return to the Help Desk and ask your question again, but in a different way.

For instance, telling the staff member that you "want a book about horses" is not asking a specific reference question when what you want to know is which horse won the Kentucky Derby in 1974. There are books on horses that cover racing, breeding, selling, riding, training, etc., so unless you want ALL possible information available "about horses," it is much better to be very specific about what you REALLY want.

The staff member may ask you to define certain terms. He or she may need to look up terms if you don't know what they mean so that assistance will be relevant.

Provide as much information as you know--what you have found out already, where you have looked, what you have tried, what terms you used.

Don't take things for granted.

Please be patient--it may take time and perseverance to find the information needed.

Confidentiality of your questions is part of the librarian's service. If another librarian or staff member is consulted, it is done to provide you with the best possible answer.

There are basically three kinds of reference questions or research needs:

  • Single Fact
  • Background
  • In Depth (research papers)

Single Facts

are numbers, names, dates, addresses, places--pretty much anything that is a "fact" that needn't be analyzed any further. These questions usually begin with:

  • Who is/was . . . ?
  • What is/was . . . ?
  • When did/was . . . ?
  • Where did . . . ?
  • How many/often . . . ?

Single fact questions rarely begin with "Why." Single fact questions can be answered in reference sources such as: almanacs, statistical sources, dictionaries (definitions and spelling of words or terms), atlases (locations, maps of places), other reference books with brief information or summaries.


Background information gives an overview of a topic. It reveals names, dates, places, and important issues that impacted the topic. Many background information sources provide bibliographies or other sources of information that enable you to find additional (in depth) information, therefore, these sources are useful as a starting point for writing research papers. These questions usually begin with:

  1. Do you have some general information about . . .?
  2. What are some of the issues involved with [controversial topic]?
  3. Where can I find some background/history on [country/author/object]?
  4. Who was involved with [a war/government/discovery/exploration/invention] . . . ?

Background questions often include words such as "about," "history of," "basic information," "some," etc. "Who," "what," "when," and "where" are often used. "Why" will again be used rarely, but more often than single fact questions.

Background questions are answered in a variety of reference sources. The main sources are encyclopedias and informational reference sources.

Subject encyclopedias are extremely valuable when they are available. They often include bibliographies that can lead you to further information. To find subject encyclopedias using the online catalog, do a search using the broad subject area for your topic and add "(dictionaries or encyclopedias)" to your search. For example:

social work and (dictionaries or encyclopedias)

Subject encyclopedias--useful for policy topics/issues (a very small percentage of the total!) owned by Colorado State University.

Gale Virtual Reference Library has a number of useful online subject encyclopedias (available to CSU affiliates only).


In-depth questions and information get to the nitty gritty of a topic. How was a particular experiment conducted? Were the results conclusive? Is further research needed before any meaningful conclusions may be reached?

The researcher is seeking primary source information--not summaries that are found in many background information sources. Also, the researcher is probably not going to be finding a definitive answer.

The kinds of reference questions asked include:

  1. Where can I find information that will explain what the underlying causes/reasons/motives were for historical events? [war, election, treaty, exploration]
  2. I need to research a company. What resources would you recommend that I use?
  3. I need to explore this issue/amendment/movement. Where should I look for information about it?
  4. What information is there on possible cures for cancer/AIDS/multiple sclerosis?
  5. Where can I find information on how minorities are treated in classrooms/businesses/communities?
  6. Where is information on the effects of mainstreaming behaviorally disturbed/gifted/physically disabled/challenged students?

Neither staff nor librarians will be able to give you the "correct" answers to these questions because frequently there really isn't one, or the information is simply not available (e.g. it is almost impossible to find anything about small, private companies). What s/he can do is direct you to resources (books, articles, Web sites, etc.) where you can explore the issue closely, examine the most relevant information carefully, and come to your own well-thought out conclusions.

The first thing you will need to do is START as soon as possible. These kinds of questions are going to take a lot of time to research. Don't expect to be finished in an hour or two. Depending on what course and level (or if it is a thesis or dissertation that you are working on), it can take literally days (or months) of research to do a good job. This is not to discourage you, but to allow you to prepare for your research. Asking a Reference Librarian for help will save you hours of time; asking good (specific) questions can assist you further.

Another reason to plan ahead is in case Colorado State University doesn't own everything you need. When Colorado State doesn't own something, Interlibrary Loan will be a useful service for you, but books from other libraries can take a week or more to arrive.

Also, before you go to the library or turn on your computer, you need to understand your assignment. What is being asked? Ask your instructor (i.e. the person grading or otherwise evaluating your paper/assignment) for details regarding anything that is unclear. Clarify what kinds of sources you need to use--books, articles, government documents, current information (some found on the Web). What is the minimum number required? What type of articles (scholarly, trade, magazinenewspaper--or a combination)?

Then, if you need research help, show up with specific questions. Do you need to know which indexes to use to find journal articles? Books? How many? Do they need to be recent? It is better to find extra information, than not enough.

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