Library Research Methods
(Adapted from Thomas Mann, Library Research Models)
Keyword searches. Search relevant keywords in catalogs, indexes, search engines, and full-text resources. Useful both to narrow a search to the specific subject heading and to find sources not captured under a relevant subject heading. To search a database effectively, start with a Keyword search, find relevant records, and then find relevant Subject Headings. In search engines, include many keywords to narrow the search and carefully evaluate what you find.
Subject searches. Subject Headings (sometimes called Descriptors) are specific terms or phrases used consistently by online or print indexes to describe what a book or journal article is about. This is true of the library’s Catalog as well as many other library databases.
Look for recent, scholarly books and articles. Within catalogs and databases, sort by the most recent date and look for books from scholarly presses and articles from scholarly journals. The more recent the source, the more up-to-date the references and citations.
Citation searches in scholarly sources. Track down references, footnotes, endnotes, citations, etc. within relevant readings. Search for specific books or journals in the library’s Catalog. This technique helps you become part of the scholarly conversation on a particular topic.
Searches through published bibliographies (including sets of footnotes in relevant subject documents). Published bibliographies on particular subjects (Shakespeare, alcoholism, etc.) often list sources missed through other kinds of searches. BIBLIOGRAPHY is a subject heading in the Catalog, so a Guided Search with BIBLIOGRAPHY as a Subject and your topic as a keyword will help you find these.
Searches through people sources (whether by verbal contact, e-mail, etc.). People are often more willing to help than you might think. The people to start with are often professors with relevant knowledge or librarians.
Systematic browsing, especially of full-text sources arranged in predictable subject groupings. Libraries organize books by subject, with similar books shelved together. Browsing the stacks is a good way to find similar books; however, in large libraries, some books are not in the main stacks (e.g., they might be checked out or in ReCAP), so use the catalog as well.
The advantages of trying all these research methods are that:
Each of these ways of searching is applicable in any subject area
None of them is confined exclusively to English-language sources
Each has both strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages
The weaknesses within any one method are balanced by the strengths of the others
The strength of each is precisely that it is capable of turning up information or knowledge records that cannot be found efficiently—or often even at all—by any of the others
From Wayne C. Booth et al., The Craft of Research, 4th ed., pp.76-79
5.4 EVALUATING SOURCES FOR RELEVANCE AND RELIABILITY
When you start looking for sources, you’ll find more than you can use, so you must quickly evaluate their usefulness; use two criteria: relevance and reliability.
5.4.1 Evaluating Sources for Relevance
If your source is a book, do this:
If your source is an article, do this:
If your source is online, do this:
This kind of speedy reading can guide your own writing and revision. If you do not structure your report so your readers can skim it quickly and see the outlines of your argument, your report has a problem, an issue we discuss in chapters 12 and 14.
5.4.2 Evaluating Sources for Reliability You can’t judge a source until you read it, but there are signs of its reliability:
1. Is the source published or posted online by a reputable press? Most university presses are reliable, especially if you recognize the name of the university. Some commercial presses are reliable in some fields, such as Norton in literature, Ablex in sciences, or West in law. Be skeptical of a commercial book that makes sensational claims, even if its author has a PhD after his name. Be especially careful about sources on hotly contested social issues such as stem-cell research, gun control, and global warming. Many books and articles are published by individuals or organizations driven by ideology. Libraries often include them for the sake of coverage, but don’t assume they are reliable.
2. Was the book or article peer-reviewed? Most reputable presses and journals ask experts to review a book or article before it is published; it is called “peer review.” Many essay collections, however, are reviewed only by the named editor(s). Few commercial magazines use peer review. If a publication hasn’t been peer-reviewed, be suspicious.
3. Is the author a reputable scholar? This is hard to answer if you are new to a field. Most publications cite an author’s academic credentials; you can find more with a search engine. Most established scholars are reliable, but be cautious if the topic is a contested social issue such as gun control or abortion. Even reputable scholars can have axes to grind, especially if their research is financially supported by a special interest group. Go online to check out anyone an author thanks for support, including foundations that supported her work.
4. If the source is available only online, is it sponsored by a reputable organization? A Web site is only as reliable as its sponsor. You can usually trust one sponsored and maintained by a reputable organization. But if the site has not been updated recently, it may have been abandoned and is no longer endorsed by its sponsor. Some sites supported by individuals are reliable; most are not. Do a Web search for the name of the sponsor to find out more about it.
5. Is the source current? You must use up-to-date sources, but what counts as current depends on the field. In computer science, a journal article can be out-of-date in months; in the social sciences, ten years pushes the limit. Publications have a longer life in the humanities: in philosophy, primary sources are current for centuries, secondary ones for decades. In general, a source that sets out a major position or theory that other researchers accept will stay current longer than those that respond to or develop it. Assume that most textbooks are not current (except, of course, this one).
If you don’t know how to gauge currency in your field, look at the dates of articles in the works cited of a new book or article: you can cite works as old as the older ones in that list (but perhaps not as old as the oldest). Try to find a standard edition of primary works such as novels, plays, letters, and so on (it is usually not the most recent). Be sure that you consult the most recent edition of a secondary or tertiary source (researchers often change their views, even rejecting ones they espoused in earlier editions).
6. If the source is a book, does it have a notes and a bibliography? If not, be suspicious, because you have no way to follow up on anything the source claims.
7. If the source is a Web site, does it include bibliographical data? You cannot know how to judge the reliability of a site that does not indicate who sponsors and maintains it, who wrote what’s posted there, and when it was posted or last updated.
8. If the source is a Web site, does it approach its topic judiciously? Your readers are unlikely to trust a site that engages in heated advocacy, attacks those who disagree, makes wild claims, uses abusive language, or makes errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
The following criteria are particularly important for advanced students:
9. If the source is a book, has it been well reviewed? Many fields have indexes to published reviews that tell you how others evaluate a source.
10. Has the source been frequently cited by others? You can roughly estimate how influential a source is by how often others cite it. To determine that, consult a citation index.