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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.

Introduction to Research Strategy

Step 1: Background Reading

Background reading gives you an overview of a topic. Be sure to complete this step and do the following step (Narrow/Adapt topic) before settling on a final topic. By seeing the scope (breadth and depth) of a subject, you can get a feeling for what you will find.

One place to do your background reading is in encyclopedias. General encyclopedias are excellent sources to consult for basic information about something. The encyclopedia article will give you names, dates, places, events, and major concepts that will help you do the rest of your research. However, do not expect your exact topic to appear when doing background reading.

Other resources to use for background information are course textbooks or instructor's lectures. In some cases, using these will provide enough information for you to proceed to step 2.

Depending on your topic, you might want to consult a subject encyclopedia for additional background information. Not every topic has a subject encyclopedia that works for it, but when there is one, it can be extremely useful.

Once you are widely familiar with a particular subject area (for example, you are an upper division student who knows the key terms and ideas) background reading will not be necessary. But for any new topic, regardless of the number of years of overall research experience, background reading is highly recommended.

Step 2: Narrow/Adapt Topic

The next thing to do is to narrow (or broaden, if necessary) your topic. Look in the library catalog (narrow to Books and more) to see if Colorado State University has any books or government documents on your topic.

  • If you are doing research on a current topic (something in the news right now), you probably won't find materials in the catalog about it. Instead, look through Current Issues Research for recommended sources.

However, if you are required to use books for your research, this is the time to change or adapt your topic! It is much easier to change your mind now than later. On the other hand, if you have plenty of time before your paper is due (4+ weeks), check WorldCat to see if there are any books on your topic that you can request from Interlibrary Loan. If you don't find books in WorldCat, CHANGE TOPICS NOW! It is important that you then repeat step 1 and this step until you have a workable topic area that is doable within your time frame. Keep your options open within that topic so that you can use what you find.

  • When you are working on a thesis or dissertation, you have months or years to work on one topic or subject, so easy accessibility isn't important. Easy accessibility is important when your paper is due in two weeks or even at the end of the semester.

Step 3: Do Retrospective Research

In retrospective sources you explore a topic in depth; in particular you look back upon an event or issue.

Check through the library catalog to find books and government documents on your topic. Be sure that you record the call number and location for each item you want to consult. Make certain to check whether or not each item is checked out ("DUE 00-00-03") while at the computer.

  • If you want an item that is checked out, recall or request (Request) it immediately; borrowers may renew their books indefinitely, so you must recall items to assure their timely return.

Then go find the items. You can ask for directions at the Help Desk.

  • If an item is missing from the shelf, return to the record in the library catalog and make a Request for missing title. Staff will then go look for the item. If they can't find it, it may then be requested from Interlibrary Loan (CSU affiliates only).

As you gather your materials, start looking through them as you pull them from the shelves. Go over How to Evaluate a Book for each. That way you will become aware of useful components, such as bibliographies, right away, so you can use them as you continue your research.

Step 4: Do Contemporary Research

Contemporary sources are those which have information close to the source, either timewise or location (paperwork generated from the research itself). Primary sources are those that are directly related or involved with an event, and it is highly desirable that you find and use them.

Most researchers are going to find their contemporary information in journal, magazine, and newspaper articles. In addition, this information can be found on the Internet, now more often called the Web. Contemporary sources remain "contemporary" even after the passage of time. Thus, a newspaper article from 1864 about the American Civil War is a contemporary source even though it was written over a century ago.

To identify articles, you will need to use an index. Generally speaking (this does not always apply any more), the index just lets you know that an article has been published. You then need to check the library catalog or FindIt@CSU to find out if Colorado State University owns the journal that the article is in. See How to Determine if Colorado State Owns a Journal for details.

Morgan Library has literally hundreds of different indexes to choose from. (Some of the electronic indexes are available to students, faculty, and staff from remote sites.) If you don't know which index to select, do not hesitate to ask at the Help Desk for assistance.

Go over How to Evaluate an Article for each article you find to assess its validity and usefulness. A final question to ask yourself is, "Is this useful for MY research?"

Be sure to read through How to Evaluate a Web Page for guidelines in evaluating this kind of information.

Step 5: Use Other Sources as Needed

Depending on your topic, the resources mentioned elsewhere may be sufficient for your research needs. However, there are numerous topics that require exploration beyond the usual sources. Consult with a Reference Librarian when you are uncertain as to what the best sources for your purposes are.

Other sources can be almost anything.

  • You may want to interview someone who is knowledgeable about your topic--or who is directly involved with it in some way (lawmaker, researcher, practitioner, observer, participant).
  • You might consult members of a Listserv who are interested or are experts in the area.
  • You might need to make use of statistics.
  • Dissertations may be a valuable resource.
  • There might be Internet sources that can assist you.

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