Figure Out What You Need and Find It

Your library has myriad resources to help you with your research. Books, journal articles, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, and Internet sources can all be part of your research. However, different topics require different types of sources. A key component of being information literate is determining the kinds of sources you need to satisfy your research questions.


Before you start your research, take a few minutes to generate keywords related to your topic. A keyword is a word or phrase that tells a search engine what you’re looking for. You will create a list of keywords by brainstorming similar terms and subtopics that will help you find resources for your topic. For example, if you are writing a paper on global warming, keywords may include climate change, greenhouse effect, ozone layer, smog, and pollution. These are just a few examples; there are dozens more. Research is essentially trying different combinations of keywords and analyzing the results. You will use keywords whether you’re looking for books, articles, or blogs.

If you are having trouble coming up with keywords, consult an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias provide general overviews of topics and can help you understand the basics of a concept or event, but you will need resources beyond encyclopedias for most college-level research projects. An encyclopedia is a great place to start but not a good place to end your research. You have probably used an encyclopedia recently and may use one all the time without thinking about it. One of the most popular encyclopedias is Wikipedia. The “wiki” part of Wikipedia refers to a type of Web site that allows many different people to edit its content. Information on wikis is constantly evolving. Wikipedia is controversial in college settings. Many people believe that the information on Wikipedia cannot be guaranteed to be reliable because anyone can change it. Some instructors prefer that students use encyclopedias that have gone through a formal editing and reviewing process like those available in print or online through your library. These instructors might forbid Wikipedia, and if any of yours do, don’t use it. Using sources that you were told to avoid will jeopardize your grade. Always cite information that you take from an outside source; if you do not, you are in danger of plagiarizing. The most important thing to remember is that no matter which encyclopedia you use, encyclopedias are a helpful first step in providing general information about your topic to help you generate keywords. Librarians are another great resource to help you with keywords. once you have your list of works started, you’re on your way to finding sources.


What kinds of sources do you need for your research project, and where should you start? First, consider the “when” or time frame of your topic. Are you researching a historical event, such as the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, or a historical figure, such as social justice crusader Ida B. Wells? Is your topic a current event or issue, such as the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, or a present-day person, such as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey? Consider also the “where” aspect of your topic. Do you need information about recent weather disasters in the United States, or do you need a global perspective?

Scholarly Articles.

Many college-level research projects will require you to use scholarly articles, which are articles written by experts in their fields, such as researchers, librarians, or professors, and then assessed and edited by other experts in a process called peer review. Authors submit their articles to a scholarly journal that has a board of respected and highly qualified reviewers who check the articles for all the basics (e.g., spelling, grammar, quality of the writing), but also evaluate the work based on its thesis, research methods, and originality. You might find that some of your instructors use the terms peer reviewed, refereed, or academic to refer to scholarly articles. Be sure to clarify what your instructor expects of your sources before you begin your work.

Unlike an encyclopedia, scholarly articles do not usually provide a general overview of a topic. Rather, they are often research or scientific studies with a hypothesis and rigorous testing. For example, for our topic of climate change we might find scholarly articles that compare temperature data over a certain time period, analyze a specific pollutant’s effect on climate change, or explore public and political discourse on the topic.

Finding Scholarly Articles.

Scholarly articles are published in scholarly journals. You can find journals in your library in a few ways. The first and most popular way is to conduct a search using an online database, which will result in titles, description, and sometimes full text of articles within the journal. The second way is to use your library’s catalog. Both methods are discussed below. The key thing to remember, however, is that online databases will let you search inside the journal. There is a much more effective approach given how difficult it would be to browse decades of print journals in the library stacks. You can always look for the print edition of the journal using the volume and issue number you find in an online database. When searching the library catalog, you are likely to find only the names of journals and not the titles of the articles within the journal.

Periodicals (Journals and Magazines).

You may have heard the word periodical before. Many sources that we use in both academic research and our personal lives are periodicals. A periodical is a resource that is published multiple times a year, such as a magazine. Periodicals often have issue and volume numbers, but the title of the periodical is always the same (e.g., Rolling Stone or Journal of Academic Librarianship). You might use magazines for some of your college research, and you will definitely use journals.

Be warned that not all periodicals are scholarly. As mentioned above, Rolling Stone is a periodical. There is a new issue every two weeks, which classifies it as a periodical, but it does not go through the rigorous peer-review process like the articles in scholarly journals. Remember, this step does not disqualify magazines as a viable source for your research, but they will not satisfy an assignment’s scholarly article requirement.

Using Databases to Find Scholarly Articles.

To find scholarly articles, you will use databases. Remember that a database is an organized and searchable set of information often classified by a certain subject area. Your library will have online databases that cover a variety of topics. Although some databases are available to anyone regardless of their affiliation with a college, access to most of the databases you’ll use for research in college requires paid subscriptions, and the material is available only to people who are affiliated with a school that pays for the service. For this reason, you will most likely need to log in with your college username and password to use the databases from off campus. Also remember that even though databases might look just like Web sites, they’re actually carefully chosen subscriptions paid for by the library. So you can use the library resources without ever stepping foot into the building, but the librarians would be happier if you came to visit.

Librarians have insider knowledge of the databases that your school can access and are masters at database searches. Working with a librarian can help you search more effectively than working solo and leads to better results with less wasted time. Some databases are specific to one subject, such as chemistry, while others include articles from a wide variety of disciplines. Many libraries have dozens, if not hundreds, of databases. It can be difficult to figure out which ones you should use, but your librarian can help you determine which databases are best for your research. Don’t be afraid to ask! It’s better to ask than to waste hours searching in the wrong place. We’ve said this before, but remember that if you search for more than 20 minutes without finding anything, it’s time to ask a librarian for help.

Scholarly articles can be a great resource. Depending on your topic, however, you might also need other types of sources.


When doing research in today’s world, online resources often overshadow books. Students and faculty alike love the convenience of online resources that can be accessed immediately and from any place with Internet access. Restricting searches to only online resources, however, will severely limit the results and might also exclude some of the best information available.

In the first few years of college, books are especially useful for research projects. Often students are in introductory classes and write research papers on broad topics, such as the Civil War. Although countless scholarly articles have been written about the Civil War, they will not provide a general overview of the topic. Such articles tend to have a narrow focus on aspects like an analysis of the economic factors that contributed to the start of the war. Many students mistakenly search databases of scholarly articles looking for a broad overview when, in fact, they should be looking for books to give them this perspective. Do not be afraid of books. Libraries—with their thousands, if not millions, of books—might intimidate many new students, but librarians who are trained to help await you. Doing research without a librarian is like driving cross country without a map or GPS. Technically, you can do it, but you will get lost along the way. It might be fun to head down uncharted paths, but when you’re facing a deadline, you want to get to your destination as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Using the Online Catalog.

To find books, print journals, and other materials physically located in the library, such as CDs and DVDs, you will use the library catalog, an online resource accessible on or off campus. Sometimes off-campus access requires you to log in with your school username and password. Please note that most library catalogs will not search articles inside the print journals; it will find only the journals by title (e.g., Journal of Climate). Searching the library catalog is a lot like searching databases. Use your keywords to find relevant materials. When you find a source that looks promising, check to see if it is currently available or if it is checked out to another student. If it’s available, write down the title, author, and the call number—which is like an address for the book that tells you where it is in the library—and head into the stacks to locate your item. If it’s checked out to another student or if your library doesn’t own the source that you’re looking for, remember to ask about interlibrary loan. One of the biggest benefits of searching for books or other sources is the ability to browse. For instance, when you find your book on the shelf, look at the other books around it. They will be on the same topic.

The Internet

The Internet simultaneously makes research easier and more difficult. Internet research is easier than research done in previous decades because people can access enormous amounts of information from virtually anywhere for free after conducting a simple search on a site like Google. The Internet also makes research much more difficult and complicated, however. First is the common misconception that search engines such as Google or Bing find everything there is to know on a topic. Many of the sources you will need to use for college-level research are accessible only through subscription databases, not through Google. Second, more results mean more shuffling through the Web pages to find relevant and credible sources. Third, the order of the search results is determined by the search engine’s secret search formulas that factor in popularity, not credibility, and are often influenced by who pays for their Web pages to be on the top of the list. Finally, search engines search a wide variety of sources, many of which are not appropriate for most college-level research. When you use a database instead, you can easily add filters to ensure that your results include scholarly articles only, and you can clearly see who the authors are. Anybody can put up a Web site, which means you can’t be sure of the Web site owner’s credibility and reliability. The sources found on the Web might be written by anyone: a fifth grader, a distinguished professor, a professional society, or a biased advocate.

A recent Google search on the subject “political corruption,” for instance, generated more than ten million hits. The first page yielded some interesting results:

  • A collection of links on politics and political corruption

  • A Libertarian Party legislative program on political corruption

  • Two ads

  • A site that offers “research” on gambling and political corruption

  • A university site offering research on political corruption in Illinois

These varied results demonstrate that you must be alert when examining Internet sources. From this example, we saw that mixed in with credible scholarship and useful links to sources on the topic of political corruption were sales promotions and arguments against gambling. It isn’t always easy to evaluate the quality of Internet sources.

Tips for Using Electronic Resources Like a Pro

  • Consult the Help or Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) links. The first time you use any catalog, database, or search engine, use the help or FAQ links to learn specific searching techniques. You will get the best results if you use the tips and strategies suggested by the database provider.

  • Write out your topic or problem as a statement or question. Writing out a statement or question, such as “Is it right for politicians to take gifts from lobbyists?” or “The influence of lobbyists or PACs has dramatically changed American political ethics,” will help you identify potentially useful keywords.

  • Brainstorm keywords. Think about synonyms, related terms, and people or historical events to use as case studies. If one search does not yield any useful hits, you’ll have some backup terms on hand. It’s also a good idea to search more than one database or engine; different ones might pull up dramatically different sources.

  • Know when to limit your search. You can often limit a search by date, language, journal name, full text, or word(s) in title. If you still get too many hits, add more search terms. Think about narrowing your topic by geographic region, a specific population, or a time period. For example, instead of just using the keyword “poverty,” you can use “poverty” and “United States” and “children” and “Great Depression.”

  • Know when to expand your search. If you get too few hits, omit a search term. You can also truncate (i.e., shorten) a word by using an asterisk to retrieve broader results. For instance, by truncating the word political to politic* you will get results with the words political, politics, politician, and/or politicize.

  • Learn the quirks of the databases or search engines that you use often. Some yield better results from Boolean operators (e.g., “politicians AND lobbyists”); others are more attuned to natural language searches (e.g., “ethics in politics” or “gifts to politicians”). Librarians have a lot of experience working in various databases and can definitely help you learn the ins and outs of the ones you need.

  • Check your library’s electronic resources page. Here you will see what else is available online. Most libraries have links to other commonly used electronic reference tools, including online encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, style guides, biographical and statistical resources, and news sources.

  • Keep trying. Research is an iterative process, meaning that you generate keywords, do searches, read, learn new things, and then repeat all or part of the process until you have what you need. The more you learn about a topic, the better your searches will be.

scholarly articles Articles written by experts in their fields, such as researchers, librarians, or professors, and then assessed and edited by other experts in a process called peer review.