HOW DO I FIND OUT ABOUT, OBTAIN AND USE GOOD SOURCES ON MY TOPIC?

  6.1 Overview: What are the Different Stages or Aspects of the Search for Sources?
  6.2 How Do I Find Out About Possibly Good Sources?
  6.21 What is Bibliographical Research?
  6.22 What are Some Basic Things to Keep in Mind When Doing Bibliographical Research?
  6.23 Sources of Bibliographical Research: The Ninth Grade Project
  6.24 The Tenth Grade Project
  6.25 The Eleventh and Twelfth Grade Project
  6.3 How Do I Decide Which Sources I'm Interested in Actually Obtaining?
  6.4 How Do I Begin to Keep a Preliminary References List?
  6.5 Once I Decide That I Actually Want to Get a Source, How Do I Locate and Obtain it?
  6.51 How Do I Locate and Obtain a Book?
  6.52 How do I Locate and Obtain a Periodical Article?
  6.6 Once I Have Actually Obtained a Source, How Can I Tell How Useful It Is?
  6.61 How Relevant is the Source to My Questions?
  6.62 How Reliable and Credible is the Source?

6.1 Overview: What are the Different Stages or Aspects of the Search for Sources?

A good detective is an expert at following leads and tracking things down; as a researcher, you must become a good source detective.

First, you have to find out about possible sources; then you have to decide if they seem worthwhile to pursue. If they seem worthwhile, you will have to find out where the sources are and how to obtain them.

As in many aspects of the research process, these successive waves of source research may overlap: you may be finding out about new sources at the same time that you are trying to obtain others.

6.2 How Do I Find Out About Possibly Good Sources?

6.21 What is Bibliographical Research?

Some people love to make lists. When you make lists of sources that may be useful to you in writing your Historia paper, you are doing bibliographical research. What you are listing is at least enough bibliographical information to identify the source (author and title) so that you can locate it and any other relevant information that you will eventually need to properly cite the source in your "References" page (publisher, place and date of publication, etc.).

As soon as you come across any bibliographical information on a source, you should record it. If you have access to a word processor, the information should be typed into your computer as soon as possible; if not, the information should be recorded on index cards (see below, "Compiling the Working Bibliography"). Some of the good sources for bibliographical research are also good sources for actual material (because they also provide full or partial text of the source), but some are just designed to provide bibliographical citations—information about the book or article (author, title, etc.) but not the book or article itself.

Although you will probably need to go outside of the Hart Library/Media Center to actually obtain some of your sources, the high (and low) tech tools in our library make it possible to do all of your bibliographical research without leaving the cozy confines of Horace Greeley H.S.

6.22 What are Some Basic Things to Keep in Mind When Doing Bibliographical Research?

a. Make Sure Your Question is Well-Defined:

If your topic is still too nebulous, you will have difficulty doing bibliographical research because you will be unable to determine which sources might be relevant to your question.

b. Find the Right Search Terms for Your Topic:

There may be many valuable sources out there, but if you are not using the correct key words, terms, and subject headings to search for them, you will never access them. Use common sense and trial-and-error to constantly test the terms you are using. If the bait doesn't catch any fish, switch bait. Consult the big red Library of Congress reference books of subject headings. If you find a good source, make note of the subject terms that are listed as cross references.

c. Use Other People's Bibliographies:

A good encyclopedia article will list the standard references on its subject. Books and articles often contain extensive bibliographies. Use these resources to your advantage. One bibliography may lead you to a source with a more extensive bibliography—and so on, as you follow an ever-widening web of sources. If the bibliographies are annotated (contain brief explanations of what the source is about) they are even more valuable. Read the annotations carefully to judge whether or not you would like to consult the source.

d. Fastest and Easiest is Not Always Best:

The recent explosion of electronic sources (especially the Internet) has apparently led some people to believe that anything printed on a piece of paper is hopelessly outdated and useless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ease and speed of access are important, but even more important is the content of the material found. If the actual material is not relevant, reliable, and valuable, no quick and easy means of access can redeem it. Meanwhile, to be able to effortless access material that is neither relevant nor reliable is not a research blessing but a curse. There is no royal road to real research; it demands patience, self-discipline, and hard work.

e. Try to Find the Best Fraction:

As you have probably realized, even if your question is suitably narrow, you will only have the time and resources to consult a small fraction of the available sources. Your challenge is to use your research skills to make sure that the part you find and use is, under the circumstances and for your purposes, the best part.

 

6.23 Sources of Bibliographical Research: The Ninth Grade Project

The main bibliographical research goal of this project is that you to become thoroughly familiar with finding articles, using the appropriate bibliographical research sources. Some of the most important sources in the Hart Library/Media Center are:

Electronic Sources

1. INFOTRAC: magazine index on CD-ROM (accessible through network computer terminals).
2. SIRS (Social Issues Resource Series): References and full-text articles on CD-ROM (accessible through network computer terminals).
3. NEW YORK TIMES INDEX (CD-ROM): References and full-text articles (accessible through network computer terminals).
4. INTERNET: access to the World Wide Web via the network computer terminals.

Print Sources

1. READERS' GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE: multi-volume index to a wide range of periodicals, extending much further back in time than Infotrac. Remember: each volume covers only a specified period of time; therefore, to conduct a meaningful search, you will have to consult a number of volumes. (Available in the Hart Library/Media reference section; see map.)
2. NEW YORK TIMES INDEX: Big red bound-volume index to search years prior to those covered on CD-ROM. Remember: each volume covers only a specified period of time; therefore, to conduct a meaningful search, you will have to consult a number of volumes. (Available in the Hart Library/Media reference section; see map.)
3. CQ RESEARCHER: Collections of single-focus articles on contemporary issues, with valuable bibliographies. Use the index to locate any articles that may be relevant to your question. (Available in the Hart Library/Media reference section; see map.)
4. CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR INDEX: Index to the newspaper. Remember: each volume covers only a specified period of time; therefore, to conduct a meaningful search, you will have to consult a number of volumes. (Available in the Hart Library/Media reference section.)
5. GENERAL AND SPECIALIZED ENCYCLOPEDIAS

 

6.24 The Tenth Grade Project

As is appropriate for a historical topic growing out of the European Civilization course, the bibliographical research goal for the tenth grade project is that you become comfortable with research primarily in books. Major sources accessible in the Hart Library/Media Center include:

1. MANDARIN: On-line catalogue for the Hart Library/Media Center. (Accessible through network computer terminals).
2. WESTLNYX: On-line catalogue for the Westchester Library System (all the public libraries in Westchester County). Accessible though the World Wide Web via the network computer terminals.
3. MPALS: Computer access to the catalogues of over twenty college, high school, and public libraries. (Accessible through network computer terminals).
4. GENERAL AND SPECIALIZED ENCYCLOPEDIAS A good encyclopedia will offer a brief bibliography of the standard works on a given subject. (Available in the Hart Library/Media reference section; see map.)

 

6.25 The Eleventh and Twelfth Grade Project

By this point, you should be comfortable and competent in conducting bibliographical research with both books and articles. Now you are ready to be introduced to a couple of more sophisticated tools.

1. DIALOG DATABASE: On-line searching of a collection of remote data bases. Contains references to books and articles, and some full-text articles. You must have a very clear idea of your focus before using this powerful research tool. The search is conducted with the assistance of a librarian, after a search form has been completed.
2. SPECIALIZED JOURNAL INDEXES: Indexes articles that have appeared in serials (periodicals) that focus on a specific field. In contrast to popular magazines, these publications are intended for a specialized audience. Although some may be too difficult to understand because they are too detailed, technical or presuppose too much background knowledge, you may be able to use many of these articles, thus adding a another dimension of intellectual sophistication to your essay.

 

6.3 How Do I Decide Which Sources I'm Interested in Actually Obtaining?

The products of your bibliographical research will mainly take the form of computer print-outs. You may also have some photocopied sheets from the hard-copy indexes, or even some handwritten citations taken from bound volumes that only contained a few relevant citations.

As you may have already realized, even a Historia paper focusing on an appropriately narrow question will be a "fractional" project. Of all the sources available on your question, you will only find out about some of them; of all the sources you find out about, you will actually obtain only some of them; and of all the sources you actually obtain, you will only use some of them. The trick is to use your judgment and instinct make sure you are using an intelligent fraction, that you are using the best sources for your particular purposes.

Faced with long lists of computer print-outs, photocopied sheets, and handwritten citations, how do you decide which sources you are actually interested in trying to obtain? Like many aspects of the research process, this is part science and part art, an intuitive knack that has to be developed through practical experience. Just from the information contained in the bibliographical citations (which may or may not be complete) you should be able to get some "feel" for what the source is like (focus, depth, etc.) and how useful it might be to you. The title (and possibly subtitle) with any subtle nuances you might be able to detect, the date of publication, and the publisher may help you decide. As always in the early stages of your research, cast your net widely; it's better to be safe than sorry, so when in doubt include (don't exclude) a source. A source that is eliminated at any stage of the process is lost forever.

One technique that may help you decide which sources to follow up on, is to classify your sources by type. One type may be sources that give a general overview of your topic. You may have five different sources that fall into this same basic category. These sources are most likely very similar; you will not have time to consult all of them (or all of the sources in any given category). So, what you need to do is pick perhaps what you consider to be the two best sources from this category and put them on your source "shopping list"—the sources you will try to actually obtain.

This process is like when you come home from vacation, and of the hundreds of pictures you have taken, you must make a selection of the best to show your friends. So you put them into piles ("the drive out West"; "the rafting trip down the Colorado River"; "the drive through the Grand Teuton National Park"; etc.). and take the best from each pile. This way you are assured of comprehensive coverage and best quality.

As you review your lists and evaluate your potential sources, you should judge each citation according to a three level system: sources you are positively interested in (yes); sources you know you are not interested in (no); and sources that you may or may not be interested in (maybe so). Use a highlighting system (or color coding) to mark the citations accordingly on the print-outs, photocopies, or notes.

Obviously, in order to be able to make these distinctions, you need to have a topic with rather well-defined limits. If your topic is still too nebulous, you will find these judgments difficult to make. Such difficulty is your cue to backtrack in the research process and bring your topic into sharper focus.

6.4 How Do I Begin to Keep a Preliminary References List?

At this point, your "shopping list" of sources (those you want or may want to go out and get) is ready to be transformed in a preliminary references list which, after a long series of deletions, additions, and modifications, will evolve into the "References" page that will appear as part of your final paper.

Experience shows that it is so much easier to compile this page as you go along, instead of trying to piece it together from incomplete information at the conclusion of your project. At this point, if you do not have access to a word processor, you should copy the available bibliographical information (author, title, publisher, etc.) onto 3 x 5 index cards, for ready reference and ease of alphabetization.

A

Bush, M.L. Rennaissance, Reformation, and the Outer World. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

  

If you do have access to a word processor, you should enter all of the available bibliographical information regarding the sources that interest you in standard form and order, as described in the Greeley Writing Manual (Third Edition, pp. 81-86; in the electronic edition follow the Points to Note and Forms of Documentation links. The conventions of this standard form allow the reader to easily identify all the pertinent information which will allow him/her to locate the source, if necessary. Although some of the citations generated by the bibliographical sources may not be complete, record all the information that is available in as close to the proper form as possible. Never let bibliographical information slip through your fingers. Nothing is more exasperating than finding out, just as you are putting your paper in final form, that you are missing a necessary bit of bibliographical information on a source. Having the information typed into the computer will make it much easier to modify and alphabetize the entries.

Your teacher may require you to submit a preliminary bibliography that is annotated. This simply means that after each entry you include a very brief description of what the source is about and how it relates to your topic. Try to give some idea of the focus and scope of the source (its type, how it fits in) in addition to its argument or point of view.

As you begin to obtain and work with your sources, you may want to make marginal notes via code, which shows the status of each source: obtained/reading/taking notes/no longer interested/cannot obtain.

 

6.5 Once I Decide That I Actually Want to Get a Source, How Do I Locate and Obtain it?

6.51 How Do I Locate and Obtain a Book?

(a) To LOCATE a book,

First, CHECK THE MANDARIN ON-LINE CATALOG, to see if the Hart Library/Media Center has the book.

If not, consult WESTLYNX to determine which public libraries in Westchester might have the book and PALS to see which college libraries in Westchester might have the book.

(b) To OBTAIN the book,

From a high school library: Ask a Greeley librarian to call in an inter-library loan request. The book should arrive in three to five days.

From a college or public library: You may either go to the library or make an inter-library loan. If you go to a public library, you may check out books with your local Chappaqua library card; if you go to a college library you will not be able to check out books, so you will have to use them on the premises.

To make an inter-library loan request, complete and submit a form to a Greeley librarian. The book should arrive in one to three weeks; it will be due two weeks later. (You may not renew books through inter-library loan.)

 

6.52 How do I Locate and Obtain a Periodical Article?

(a) To LOCATE a periodical article,

First, check the magazine list to see if the Hart Library/Media Center receives the periodical, and if the library's holdings include the issue in which the article appears.

If the library has the periodical, complete a periodical request slip and submit it to the librarian. Periodicals may not be checked out of the library. Some periodical articles may also be found on microfiche, and may be printed out in hard copy with one of the reader/printers.

If the Greeley library doesn't have the article, ask a librarian to direct you to the Westchester School Library System Union List, a gray paperback book. If the periodical is listed, ask a librarian to call in an interlibrary loan request. A photocopy of the article should arrive in about three to five days.

If no school library in Westchester has the article, ask a librarian to direct you to the Westchester Union List of Serials, a pinkish two-volume paperback set. If the periodical is listed, you may either request an interlibrary loan (following the same procedure as for books), or you may go to the library yourself. If you visit the library, you will probably not be able to check out the periodical.

 

6.6 Once I Have Actually Obtained a Source, How Can I Tell How Useful It Is?

6.61 How Relevant is the Source to My Questions?

As part of your bibliographical research, you have already made a preliminary judgment on how relevant a source is to your question. Now that you have the source in hand, you can further assess the source's relevance.

If the source is a book, scan the chapter headings in the table of contents to get a sense of the scope and organization of the book to see where it many intersect your topic. Look at the index and look up some specific elements (topics, people, events, etc.) that you know are central to your question. What if you find an entire full-length book devoted entirely to your exact question? This suggests that your question is too broad and has to be pared down. Ideally you should be dealing with chapters and sections of books (if books are included in the research protocol for your current grade-level project). If the source is an article, scan the subtitles and section headings. If the source is on the Web—where titles and references can sometimes be deceiving-explore the site to make sure the material is really about what it says it is about and that it has a meaningful connection to your area of inquiry.

6.62 How Reliable and Credible is the Source?

6.621 Overview

The value of your thinking will only be as good as the reliability of the sources on which it is based. While the recent explosion of the Internet has brought questions of reliability to the fore, issues of credibility have always been crucial to the research process. While some of the issues are unique to particular media, many of the issues are shared by print and electronic media in similar form.

An interesting aspect of in-depth historical research is that as you read many different sources on the same relatively narrow subject, you will notice not only differences in interpretation, but occasional discrepancies in fact. You need to collate sources and assess the credibility of sources in order to make sure the information in your paper is accurate. One sign that you have researched diligently is your ability to notice the small but not infrequent errors in published material.

Regardless of the type of source, the hallmark of intellectual maturity is constant critical analysis and scrutiny. Avoid veering off into paranoia, but be aware that things may not always be what they seem. Don't automatically take things at face value. Constantly cross-examine and interrogate your sources.

Below are some important categories and questions to ask about your source—whether print or on-line—in order to assess its credibility.

 

6.622 Categories to Consider

a. Author:

Is the source attributed to an author? Who wrote the source? Is the author an expert who is qualified to write authoritatively on the subject? Does the author have formal academic training and/or direct experience that would qualify him/her to write as an expert? What formal academic degrees or direct experience does the author have in regard to this subject? Consider the position, life history, affiliations, and other public pronouncements of the author. Do they suggest that the author has a vested interest in a particular point of view that might undermine his/her objectivity and credibility?

"Bias" is a tricky word, an easy label to pin on anything with which we do not agree. But there is a real difference between legitimately arguing for a particular point of view in light of all the available evidence, and being biased. Being biased implies some type of prejudgment, distortion of facts and arguments (through significant omission or otherwise), and irrationality. Although some bias is quite common (especially in primary sources), it does not automatically make a source totally useless. We can adjust for known biases, and sift through material in biased sources by using careful corroboration with other sources.

b. Publisher:

(1) Print sources: Was the source published by a reputable, well-known publisher? Although no publisher is immune from publishing less than reliable material, some have more stringent controls and procedures to ensure accuracy than others.

(2) On-line sources: One of the unique features of the Web is its openness: essentially everyone can become his/her own electronic publisher and make their materials available to the whole world. This is liberating, democratic, and intellectually exhilarating; but it is also frightening because of the lack of safeguards and controls. In assessing an Internet source, ask all the same questions you would ask about a print source. Additionally, ask yourself whether the material has been posted by a private individual or has some official status (or has been reviewed) by a recognized, reputable organization.

3. Date of Publication: If you are doing a relatively current topic that is subject to rapid change (as is most likely at the ninth grade level), sources may become quickly outdated. In that case, you will want to obtain the most recent possible sources. If you are doing a more historical topic (as is most likely at the sophomore level and beyond), then the date of the publication will be less significant. There are classic historical interpretations that were published quite a while ago; whereas recent material may not have the same weight. Yet, be aware that there can be major shifts in historical interpretations; as the storehouse of historical data grows, new methodologies evolve, and times change. Even if a source is outdated, it may still have "historical value"; that is, as evidence of what certain people thought at a particular time.

 

4. Features of the Work Itself:

a. Both Print and On-Line

(1) Scholarly Features: Does the source (especially a book) have a good index, a good list of references, and some form of documentation to credit sources? Not only do these features make the book much more useful to you, but they are also the sign of a work of serious scholarship.

(2) Technical accuracy: Is the work marred by a greater than average number of misspelled words and grammatical lapses? Are the references and quoted material in proper form? If the creators of the source have been careless with their language and form, how can we trust the content?

(3) Intellectual content:

(a) Is the research base of the material sufficient to support its conclusions and generalizations? Is opinion being passed off as fact? What specific facts and figures are offered as evidence for generalizations? How reliable are the sources of those facts and figures? Are statistics used properly?

(b) Can you detect any flaws in the logical reasoning of the material? Does it contain any hidden assumptions, internal inconsistencies, or major omissions? Are all terms clearly defined and do these meanings stay constant throughout the source?

(c) Can the objective aspects of the material be verified and corroborated with other sources (either online or in print)? Does the source provide documentation that will allow you to assess the validity of the research base?

b. On-Line Sources Only

(1) Is the material presented in a Web format that is appropriate to its purpose and of high technical quality? Does the format help to convey the content of the material? Are the links clear, effective, and easy to use? Are various media (movies, sound) used appropriately and creatively to convey the content?

(2) Is the site well-designed so as to facilitate easy navigation within it? Is the site well-organized, with appropriate and clear menus, indexes, tables of contents, search functions, and on-line "help"? Are the links to related material clear, well-marked, functioning, and useful?

(3) Does the site have aesthetic features that enhance the clarity and usefulness of the material? Does the overall design (including colors, background, and text; icons and other graphical elements) enhance the usefulness of the material as a source of learning?

 

SOURCES AND REFERENCES:

Rowland, Robin and Kinamn, Dave. Researching on the Internet: The Complete Guide to Finding, Evaluating, and Organizing Information Effectively. California: Prima Publishing, 1995. [pp. 66-72; 95-97]

Barzun, Jacqes, and Graff, Henry. The Modern Researcher. Fourth Edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. [Chapter on "Verification," pp. 109-144]

 


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