Gideon over at Scholastici.us recently posted a great article titled Beyond Wikipedia: 20 Online Resources You Can’t Do Without. It listed 20 useful online information sites to help people move beyond just Wikipedia when searching for a crucial factiod. As usual for Gideon, terrific stuff. Well-researched. Immediately useful…
This brings up, however, an important question regarding student study habits: what role should web sites play in the writing of a college-level paper. The answer — and I think this is important for new students to hear — should be: basically none. A serious college-level paper should not cite any source that begins with “http”. There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Some contemporary primary sources, for example, exist only online. But the general rule is important.
Beyond Wikipedia for Serious Paper Research
Where should your paper information come from? The library. Specifically, books and scholarly articles. These have survived the rigors of editing and peer review, and they follow conventions of sourcing and citation that ensure that the information contained within is substantiated. More importantly, this is what your professor wants. A Wikipedia reference will annoy him. Trust me.
Finding these sources can prove a tough chore. The title of this post comes from the fact that Harvard’s Widener Library — the second largest library in the world — holds over 15,731,298 volumes. This provides some sense of the immensity of the archive in which you are searching for your narrow subject. It can be daunting.
To help in this process, here are a collection of strategies, first reported in Straight-A, that real students have developed for finding the perfect source within the vastness of your college library:
5 Tips for Easily Finding What You Need in the Library
- Start general then move one layer deeper.
Begin with a book that broadly covers the topic area you are interested in. You can find these on the course reserve shelf or listed in your recommended reading list for the class. Once you have the general book, flip to the references cited by the author. Here you will discover the otherwise hard to find, highly-focused journal articles that dissect your topic with a level of specificity that will prove research gold in your paper-writing process.
- Ask your professor.
Learning the intricacies of the body of published knowledge surrounding a niche topic requires years of immersion. This is time your professor has already invested. Take advantage of this reality. Early in the paper writing process ask her for some recommendations. Use these as a starting point, following the references, as described in (1), to move even deeper into the topic area.
- Befriend the reference librarians.
One of the most sadly underused resources on campus are the reference librarians. These library professionals have been trained in the dark art of teasing forth that perfect, hidden source from the convoluted vastness of the library system. More importantly, they are there to help you! Start your research process by checking in with the reference librarian. He can help you quickly turn up a variety of targeted sources you may have otherwise never stumbled upon. Pay attention to how he conducts these searches. The skills will ease your search pains in future projects.
- Browse by subject in the library search interfaces.
When searching for a book in the library card catalog, or a journal article in an online database, notice the official list of subject keywords that accompanies each returned result. (In the card catalog, these are the official Library of Congress subject descriptions assigned to the book, in a journal database these are typically assigned by a proprietary scheme unique to the journal or organization that publishes the journal). When you find a source that seems useful, click on the subject keywords to have the database return all resources tagged the same. This is a quick way to turn up relevant sources that would have been hard to identify through a direct search.
- When in doubt, Google.
For some esoteric subjects, it may prove near impossible to find relevant sources simply through searches of the card catalog or journal databases. In these cases, consider turning to the more advanced search algorithm of Google. First, attempt a search in Google Books. With an increasing number of titles indexed by this search engine, you have a good chance of finding what you are looking for. Once you have a title and author you can then retrieve the book in your college’s library. If that fails, do a standard Google web search. You can often find an obscure book or journal reference this way from some long forgotten syllabus, or auto-archived copy of an academic article that failed to escape Google’s pervasive grip. Once you have a title and author, again, you can turn to your regular library to find a hard copy.