Library Research Process
Maybe you have been assigned a topic by your professor, or you are
hunting for a subject on your own. Once you have decided what you want
to research, consider the following questions:
- What do you already know about your topic?
- What level of research does your assignment require? For example,
are you preparing to write a scholarly research paper with a
bibliography and footnotes, or delivering a brief class presentation?
- Are you looking for quick facts, statistics, or a broad overview of your
topic, or do you need to analyze the topic in depth?
- Has your professor required that you consult certain types of
materials such as books, or articles in popular or scholarly periodicals,
or a particular database?
- Does your assignment require that you consult a specific number of
- Does your topic deal with historical or current events?
- Do you have a broad topic or is it very specific? For example,
do you want to research women's health issues in general, or the health
concerns of early 20th century immigrant women in New York City?
After you have defined your topic and considered the questions above,
it's time to start looking for information and resources.
Answers to the questions above will also help you choose appropriate
research tools. For example:
- Almanacs, dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias are
useful tools for finding quick facts, statistics, or a broad overview of
topic. If you don't know much about your topic already, these tools can
be a good place to start.
- Use library catalogs when you need to know what a particular
library owns and where to find it. The ISU
books, journals, magazines, newspapers, electronic databases, microfilm,
videos, software, and other formats. Increasingly, the ISU catalog also
provides access to Web resources.
- Bibliographies, periodical and newspaper indexes, and abstract
services are useful tools for finding articles in journals,
magazines, newspapers, finding chapters or essays within books, and other
publications on your topic.
- When using bibliographies, periodical and newspaper indexes,
and abstract services, bear in mind that this is often a two-step
process: (a) first, use the bibliography or index to identify an item,
and (b) then use the
Catalog to find out if that item is owned by the Library.
- Be aware that bibliographies and indexes may come in electronic
or book format, and that these finding tools may focus on many different
from general information to subject-specific research information. You
will want to identify and use the finding tool(s) that best meet your
the Web if you need supplemental information or unique resources
for your topic, or if your topic is designed for Web research. In
general, the Web is usually not the first place you should go to look
for research materials, but there are exceptions.
If you do want to use Web resources for your
research, be sure to evaluate every piece of
information you find on the Web.
- A note on search strategy:
If you don't find anything on your topic, try using alternate words
to describe the subject. For example, a library catalog might use the
subject term "hispanic americans" or "mexican americans" while another
tool, such as a periodical index or a specialized encyclopedia, might use
the term "latinos" or
"chicanos". Think creatively, and ask a reference librarian for help.
For this step, you need to find out whether your library owns a copy
of the item you need, or can help you get access to it. At ISU, the
process here is simple:
- Enter the ISU Library
and do a title, subject, keyword, or
author search based on the information you have. For example, you may
know that Nicolás Kanellos has written extensively on Latinos, but
you don't have the specific titles. In this case, do an author search.
In the catalog, click on author, and type:
- If you have a citation to a journal article, you need to find out
whether the ISU Library owns that particular journal.
Again, enter the
Library Catalog and do a title search on the name of that
-- not the title of the individual article itself. For
example, say you've found the following citation in an index:
The same process applies when you have a citation to an essay or
chapter within a book. Do a title search in the
Library Catalog on the name
of the book itself, not the chapter or essay title.
Note that you do not type in accent marks, use capitalization, or
punctuation when searching the
Once you locate your item in the
Library Catalog, write down or print out the item's location and
number. For journal, magazine, and newspaper articles, also check the
holdings to make sure the library owns the specific issue you need.
If you cannot locate your item in the
Library Catalog this may mean that the ISU Library does not own
that particular item. In this case, you may
want to verify this by consulting with a reference librarian. If the
item is not held, you can use Interlibrary
Loan, a service that borrows items from
other libraries for you. Typically this process does take time, so you
will want to plan ahead should you anticipate needing resources not
Now that you've found your materials and information, how do you know or
how can you tell whether it's really relevant or suitable for your
research project? Sometimes, we have the tendency to want to use
the first thing we find simply because it's the easiest and quickest
thing to do. Sometimes we also have the tendency to believe anything we
see in print. If you want to become a good researcher, or write
successful papers, or simply get good (or better) grades, you need to
resist these tendencies! Give yourself ample time for your research
project, including not only time to find the information and write your
paper, but also (and most importantly) the time to read through it and
Critical thinking is a necessary skill to
develop as you read through all the information you've found on your
topic. At its most basic level, "critical thinking" means that as you read,
you review your materials by asking yourself questions
such as where the information came from, who is the author or publisher,
how recent is the material, is it authoritative or valid, and so on.
Most research publications go through an external editing or
peer review process that helps verify the authority and accuracy of
the information presented. Reputable newspapers and magazines also check
their facts, but you will also want to consider
such issues as objectivity, currency of your information, and how
thoroughly your topic is covered. The majority of Web resources lack
this kind of peer review or even simple fact checking, which means that
you, the user, must thoroughly
evaluate anything you encounter on the Web before deciding whether you
should use it in your research.
To learn all the steps of evaluation, consult the
How to Critically Analyze Information Sources, written by
several reference librarians from Cornell University.
(And just fyi, at a more advanced level, critical thinking
involves the intellectual evaluation of such things as how and why you have
arrived at a
certain opinion or conclusion, which is certainly useful during the
thinking and writing stage of your research process, and during class
discussions. Take a look at
Critical Thinking: What It Is
and Why It Counts, written by Peter A. Facione, Dean of the
Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University, for an understandable
and even fun introduction to the topic.)
Also, the following links can help you evaluate
not only Web resources but, in many cases, more traditional
publications as well.
ACRL/CNI Internet Education Project, an up-to-date list of useful
Web guides describing how to really do research on the Internet,
how to choose search engines, and the best ways to get good results from
Internet Resources, long annotated list of evaluation pages,
compiled by Webster University library
Evaluating Web Resources, online teaching materials present major
evaluation criteria via Powerpoint slide presentation, from Wolfgram
Memorial Library at Widener University
Evaluating Web Sites, by librarian Joyce Lindstrom at ISU
Thinking Critically about WWW Resources, listing of questions to
consider, developed by librarian Esther Grassian at UCLA
You want to be careful to fully document or cite all the resources you
use in your research, especially if you are quoting or otherwise using other
people's work, ideas, or phrasing. Despite popular belief, this includes
anything and everything you
find on the Web. (Not citing the sources of your research, even
materials from the Web, can be considered
plagiarism, a serious form of
that could cause you to be put on probation or be suspended from the
Depending on the format of your assignment, you will
probably compile a reference list, footnotes, a bibliography, or a
combination of these. (This is another reason you will want to carefully
document your research in progress -- if you forget to write down or
print out the full citation for your source, you will need to retrace your
steps in order to complete your bibliography, and this may not always be
easy to do!)
Style manuals available on the Web and accessible through the
Library Catalog can help you develop a consistent format for your
Increasingly, style manuals include instructions on how to cite
electronic and WWW resources.
Iowa State University
Last updated: 12 May 1999
Created: 09 January 1998