The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you may need to rearrange or recycle these steps. Adapt this outline to your needs.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP YOUR TOPIC.
SUMMARY: State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, "What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?" Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.
STEP 2: FIND BACKGROUND INFORMATION.
SUMMARY: Look up your keywords in the indexes to subject encyclopedias. Read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles. Additional background information may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings.
STEP 3: USE CATALOGS TO FIND BOOKS.
SUMMARY: Use keyword searching for a narrow or complex search topic. Use subject searching for a broad subject. Print or write down the citation (author, title,etc.) and the location information (call number and library). Note the circulation status. When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject; they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. Check the standard subject subheading "--BIBLIOGRAPHIES," or titles beginning with Annual Review of... in the Cornell Library Catalog.
SUMMARY: Use periodical indexes and abstracts to find citations to articles. The indexes and abstracts may be in print or computer-based formats or both. Choose the indexes and format best suited to your particular topic; ask at the reference desk if you need help figuring out which index and format will be best. You can find periodical articles by the article author or title by using the periodical indexes in the Cornell Library Catalog. When you have recorded or printed out the citation from the index, locate the library that owns the periodical you want by looking up the title of the periodical in the Cornell Library Catalog. For the periodical indexes directly linked to the Cornell Library Catalog, you can locate the periodical by entering HOL on the command line. The full text of some periodical articles is now available from indexes like Periodical Abstracts/ABI Inform.
STEP 5A: FIND INTERNET RESOURCES
STEP 5B: FIND AUDIO AND VIDEO RESOURCES
STEP 6: EVALUATE WHAT YOU FIND
SUMMARY: See How to Critically Analyze Information Sources and Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals: A Checklist of Criteria for suggestions on evaluating the authority and quality of the books and articles you located. If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. Check with a reference librarian or your instructor.
When you're ready to write, here is an annotated list of books to help you organize, format, and write your paper.
STEP 7: CITE WHAT YOU FIND USING A STANDARD FORMAT
Give credit where credit is due. Cite your sources using one of the styles listed below or another style approved by your instructor. Handouts summarizing the APA and MLA styles are available at Uris and Olin Reference.
Revised 19 February 2001
Michael Engle, firstname.lastname@example.org
Division of Reference Services, Olin*Kroch*Uris Libraries
Cornell University Library