How to Do Research in a Library
Learning how to do research in a library is a skill you can draw on throughout your life. If you have months or years to research your dissertation or your book about the invention of widgets, then streamlining your research methods isn’t all that important. Most people, however are working under serious time constraints when they are asked to research and write a paper, whether for a college course or for a job assignment. When you are pressed for time, learning how to access information quickly will help you do your research in a library more efficiently.
Research your topic by doing a little background reading.A quick look at some basic information about your chosen topic will indicate the scope of information available. A quick way to start is to simply look up the topic in an encyclopedia. If you can’t find sufficient basic information about your chosen topic in an encyclopedia, you will have to dig deeper to find the basic information you need to get started on your research, such as dates and events, just to get an overview of your subject. Ask the reference librarian for help to get you started. For example, if you want some background information on the dairy industry, formulate your questions with these queries:
- Do you have some general information about the dairy industry?
- What are some of the issues involved with hormones and milk production?
- Where can I find information about the benefits of organic milk?
- Where can I find some background/history on the dairy industry in Europe?
- Who was involved with the invention of automated milking machines?
Further refine your topic.If your first exploratory research efforts didn’t yield much information, think about narrowing down your topic, or expanding it. This becomes more important if you have serious time constraints: if it is difficult to find broad background information on your topic, how will you find in depth facts if you have only 2 or 3 weeks to research and write about your topic?
- Look at the Library of Congress Subject Headings for keywords that apply to your topic.
- Browse through your library’s interlibrary loan system, if they have one. If you can’t find books about your topic in an interlibrary system, you might want to change topics; it is a sure indicator that you will not have an easy time finding resources to support your paper.
- Ask if the library has access to SAGE. This software helps researchers with their projects, including designing your writing project. You will be able to search for information about your topic in a variety of sources, including government documents, magazines and journals.
Formulate good research questions.Reference librarians can assist you much faster if your research request if specific. Tell the reference librarian about the topic you want to research, and about what you intend to do with the information. The depth and breadth of resources you will need will vary according to what you need the information for. Are you going to write a short speech? Are you working towards a dissertation? Are you writing a short summary of the topic, or are you writing a 20 page paper on it?
Give the reference librarian a chance to help you narrow your research.Tell the librarian what you have already searched for and what search terms you used. Specify your needs; break down your reference question to a single fact if that is all you need to complete your research. Phrase a single fact question in a way that will elicit the information you need:
- Who is/was . . . ?
- What is/was . . . ?
- When did/was . . . ?
- Where did . . . ?
- How many/often . . . ?
Compose your research questions so that you will find in-depths answers.Start by asking questions that will lead you to solid primary source information:
- I need to research XYZ company. What resources would you recommend that I use?
- Where can I find information about the Montreal Olympics?
- What information is available about orphanages in Romania during the 1960s?
- How can I find out about the origins of genetically modified seeds?
Don’t expect a reference librarian to provide all the answers for you.A reference librarian can help direct you to the resources and relevant information you need; it’s up to you to extract the information.
- Ask for help in the library if you are not sure how to use their software; ask if there is a printed set of instructions available that outlines tips on how to use the library’s computers or interlibrary loan system.
- Consulting a reference librarian can save you many hours of time, but allow as much time as possible to complete your research project.
- Be sure to take a pen and paper with you before you approach a reference librarian.
- A reference librarian is not a mind reader. Be as specific as possible with any request. Asking for a book about housing in the 1950s when what you are looking for is statistics about the number of single family homes in 1954, is a waste of time for both of you. If your request is too broad, you will end up being guided to books that cover the entire gamut of the subject, and trying to find the specific information you need will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
- If the book you need is already checked out, be sure to put a request in for it immediately. Many libraries allow their patrons to keep renewing their books indefinitely. If there is no hold request on file for your book, you may not be able to get it in time to conduct your research.
Video: Introduction to academic research
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