Choosing, Narrowing, and Researching a Topic

Assignments that require the use of library materials can take many forms and will be a part of many of your classes. There are numerous ways to search for information to complete an assignment, and we’ll consider some of them later in the chapter. Before you start searching, however, you need to have an idea of what you’re looking for.

Choosing a topic is often the most difficult part of a research project. Even if an instructor assigns a general topic, you’ll need to narrow it down to a particular aspect that interests you enough to make worthwhile the time and energy you’ll spend pursuing it. Imagine, for example, that you have been assigned to write a research paper on the topic of political ethics. What steps should you take?

Your first job is to get an overview of your topic. You can begin by looking at general and specific dictionaries and encyclopedias. To learn something about political ethics, for example, you might consult a political dictionary and the Encyclopedia of American Political History. Similar broad sources are available for just about any subject area, from marketing to sports psychology to colonial American literature. Check your library’s reference area or consult with a librarian for leads.

Once you’ve acquired some basic information to guide you toward an understanding of the nature of your topic, you have a decision to make: What aspects of the subject will you pursue? Even if you launch the most general of inquiries, you will discover very quickly that your topic is vast and includes many related subtopics. Reviewing your search results will give you more information and introduce you to new aspects of your topic. You can use this new information to create more keywords. Keywords are words or phrases that are the central to finding the resources you need. You’ve already used keywords. When you use a search engine such as Google, you can type in an entire sentence (e.g., How does global warming affect the polar ice caps?), but when using library resources, you need to pull the main ideas, or keywords, out of the sentence and use those terms to search. The keywords in that sentence are “global warming” and “polar ice caps.”

You want to find a dozen or so focused and highly relevant hits on an aspect of the topic that you can fashion into a coherent, well-organized essay. Begin by assessing what you already know and asking what you would like to learn more about. Perhaps you know a little about the efforts of lobbyists and political action committees to influence legislation, and you’re curious about recent efforts to limit what gifts politicians may accept; in that case you might decide on a three-pronged topic: gifts to politicians, political corruption, and lobbyists.

You can follow these steps to focus any topic. By simply consulting a few general sources, you’ll find that you can narrow a broad topic to something that interests you and is manageable in size. From reference works and a quick search of a library catalog, periodical databases, or the Internet you will find definitions, introductory materials, some current and historical examples of your topic in action, and related information. You are now ready to launch a purposeful search.

keyword A term used to tell a search engine what you're looking for. Keywords are synonyms, related terms, or subtopics of your search topic.