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Beyond Wikipedia: 15,731,298 References You Can’t Do Without

Gideon over at 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

9 thoughts on “Beyond Wikipedia: 15,731,298 References You Can’t Do Without”

  1. Sorry, as a college professor who usually finds what you write to be useful, I have to say you missed the mark on this one. Let’s start with the idea that online sources should play basically no role in your paper. Not only is this idea wrong, but it misdirects the issue at hand. Of course given certain contexts one should cite online sources, for example when writing a paper about web content. The rule is: Site only primary sources. Primary sources can be web content or print content. Indeed in some cases there are now academic journals which exist only online and are worthy of being cited.

    One should not as a general rule cite wikipedia (unless your paper is on wikipedia) but this is not an online versus offline issue, but rather a secondary source vs. primary source issue. In the same regard one should not cite Britannica, but by your rule one could for it is in a library.

    I wrote an extended How to for research, which needs to be updated and focuses on English majors, but presents a more nuanced approach than this.

    Realize that libraries are no longer the harbinger or gatekeepers of knowledge, this doesn’t mean that they are not useful, indeed they are but databases are far more useful. Knowing how to navigate a good database, plus World Cat will get you much further than focusing on one library where you could be misdirected towards one book. How to find the right database? This is where your professor and librarian can help you. (Probably the most important step.)

  2. Thank you for the comment. It’s fantastic to have an actual professor chime in here.

    I think we are actually on the same page. I tried to say more or less the same thing as you; e.g.,

    There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Some contemporary primary sources, for example, exist only online.

    But it’s clear from your comment that I should have been more direct about this. As you say, it’s a primary source versus a secondary source issue. Don’t use web sites as secondary sources.

    I count — perhaps confusingly — online journal databases as part of the library (as they are often accessed through the library interface). So finding that right journal article, is within the scope of “using the library.” The worry I have, which it seems you share, is students actually citing wikipedia or random online profiles.

    Thank you for your clarification. I think you put it better than me.

  3. And the contents of the 15+ million books on Harvard’s shelves would fit on how little memory? Let’s get over the limitations imposed by printed paper, physical storage of books, and manual retrieval of information. Let Harvard put full text, searchable versions of its collection out there for all of us. As long as traditional academicians keep our noses pushed into ink-on-paper, they stand in the way of a tidal wave of good research which no longer requires paring down due to “space” restrictions. There’s no reason that every footnote shouldn’t have an on-line reference. How many DVDs would it take to replace Harvard’s libraries — not very many. Enough of the quill pen mentality. Ben Franklin would have got out of printing a long time ago had the Internet been around in his day.

  4. as a student who likes research and more importantly is unable to get access to the libraries as you call them, online research can prove to be quite a valuable tool. When vision is limited (in my instance) I would not be able to follow this warning that successfully simply because i cannot access or read any printed materials with ease. I would have to take more realistic aproaches: Hire a narrator (expenses increase)–or, scan the book page by page. Fortunately , there are many websites which host a vast majority of libraries online and some are helping you with research. You cannot indeed cite wikipedia as it is obvious it is a contribution based on often challenged validity into information. Another interest point however, is to be able to verify everything that is in one paper. I am really glad they don’t ask you for a birth certificate with your picture and your social security number attatched in order for you to be able to verify your name…. yet 🙂 . Anyway, a number of growing services are available online and you could direct the people to these in case they cannnot read print (like myself). The library of congress has a national library service in which books are shipped a week after they are ordered in braille, recorded or sometimes electronically. Individuals have to prove their disability. Another such source is now being offered to different colleges, such as the RFBD (recording for the blind and dyslexic) which provides books on cd for someone’s listening preference. Although this is useful, it also represents delay in obtaining the materials. Another better source that is becoming increasingly popular is . It allows any user who is blind to access almost any kind of book online. The questia research library has good services, and more so for the published books they provide (prentice hall, Glencoe, ETC). This service is available at a flat fee for all. By using these services or reading sources from other articles and then looking for the sources in this manner, perhaps it is time we can allow such instance for citing sources and thus broaden oportunity.


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