Find out what specific subject headings pertain to your topic (there may be several), so you can search the library catalog effectively (see Searching the catalog by subject and keyword for details).
Ask the reference librarian to recommend journals or periodicals held in the library’s collection which are likely to cover your topic the best. You can often use search syntax to restrict your search in a periodical index to certain journals. That way, the articles you find should be in your library’s collection and available to you. If you don’t find enough material, you may also want to search the periodical index without limiting it to journals in your library, then find out how to get copies of the articles you need.
Search one of the index tools to discover essays or other “less than book length” works on your topic which are included in collections but won’t be catalogued individually in the library catalog. There are resources appropriate to specific subjects (i.e., history, literature, science).
Don’t overlook non-book materials such as videos, CD-ROMs, films, audio tapes, maps, brochures. These items should be recorded in the library’s online catalog.
Ask your reference librarian how he/she would approach a search for your topic on the internet. Most reference librarians, especially subject specialists, have done a lot of internet research and may have a pretty good idea of how successful you’ll be in researching your particular topic there.
Consult a subject-oriented directory on the internet. Now that you’ve zeroed on a specific topic, you can find out whether it falls in the categories identified by the people (like Yahoo) who classify sources on the internet. If your topic happens to fit neatly into one of the subcategories used by a directory, you may be able to find links to information simply by browsing the directory.
Choose a search engine and make sure you know its search syntax (see Skills for Online Searching). Do a couple of quick, preliminary searches to test how easy or tough it’s going to be to get quality information on your topic. Construct an appropriate search term or phrase and try it. Let the engine search the whole Web and see how many hits you get, then quickly scan the first few pages of hits. Try adjusting your search term using Boolean operators, synonyms or truncation and run it again—count the hits and look at the first few pages.
Evaluate your quick searches. If you get many thousands of hits with the terms you used, and the first few pages of hits have a lot of items unrelated to your topic, then look at the advanced search features of the engine you’re using to see if you can focus the search better. In the search engines which also include subject classifications, you may be able to limit your search to a particular subject area. Review your search terms in light of the irrelevant hits to see if you can revise your search terms for a better result.
Redo your search until you’ve done the best you can. Then start browsing the pages of hits and following the interesting ones. Often if you can find at least one good page that’s on point to your topic, it will contain some links to other, similar pages and you’ll be off and running.
If you decide to switch search engines, remember to change syntax. Each search engine has its own syntax, so what worked in one won’t necessarily work in the others (more details in Skills for Online Searching).
A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz