Start in the reference room, with some general sources. For a literature course, you may be reading encyclopedia articles about various authors or looking at biographical dictionaries. For a history or science course, you’ll be reading a general encyclopedia or a special subject encyclopedia. To find out what current issues are important in your subject, browse current periodicals. Ask the reference librarian for a recommendation of sources to use for general reading in your subject area.
Search the library’s catalog after getting some advice about specific subject headings to use (see Searching the catalog by subject and keyword for details). Browse the list of books and materials held by the library within several different subject headings related to your course. Note how many items are held and whether they are look interesting to you. Are they general or specific? Are they current? Are there any periodicals listed? Are there interesting items other than books?
Look at the subcategories used in the catalog. You can learn a lot about a subject simply by looking at how the it’s broken down into subcategories. This will show you what issues the experts who work in this field consider important enough to treat separately.
Last, take a trip to “the stacks” and browse the shelves in your subject area to see what titles are available. The shelf arrangement usually comes from either the Dewey Decimal system or Library of Congress and will be somewhat different from the subject headings used in the library catalog. On the shelves, books with similar subjects should be located near each other. Use the call numbers of several of the books you found in the catalog to direct you to a particular shelf in the library. Look at the books around that book, even going into different call numbers. Pull some books off the shelf and look through the table of contents and index to get an idea of topics covered and how the topics are organized. Do a little skimming and look for interesting issues or ideas.
To get a broad overview of a subject on the internet, browse the subject-classified “Web directories” such as Yahoo! and LookSmart (see Links for Research -Web directories for links to these and others).
Note how the subject is broken down into subcategories, to see how information in that subject is organized and what some of the issues are. Be sure to spend some time following the links to examine the pages and sites which have been listed. Often, it is difficult to determine just how comprehensively a subject is covered by looking at the number of sites. Many thousands of Web pages have little actual content and are mainly links to other pages, which may be links to other pages, and so on “ad infinitum.” Following the links through to actual pages is like browsing the library shelves and pulling books off the shelf to skim the contents.
Run a quick search using one of the search engines. Once you feel you’re familiar enough with the subject that you’ve identified some key words or concepts, use them to do a test search to see what kind of result you get. Look at both the quantity and the quality of the first few pages of hits to get some idea of how easy or difficult it may be to research that subject in more depth on the internet if you choose it as your topic. (See Links for Research – Search Engines for links to a number of search engines.)
A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz