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Library Research Techniques of the Professional Scholar

1. Lateral Thinking and Abstract Thinking

All scholarly analysis involves looking at the evidence and discovering a
pattern that makes meaning. In literary analysis, for instance, the evidence
can be the text itself, the text in combination with other texts by the same
author or others from the same or different eras, the economic and social
history of the time in which the author produced the text, etc.. When youve
finished searching Internet-based bibliographic indices or online library
catalogues on the keywords (terms of art, main words that describe the
"pattern" youre studying), make a list of all their synonyms and repeat the
search. Even if you found things with your own words for things, dont assume
the rest of the scholarly world uses the same terms you do unless youve
been in the business for a while.
When youve finished searching, and especially if you have found
nothing or not what you wanted, move up the scale of abstraction in your
name for the thing or concept. For instance, if you were working on a thesis
that involved "Hawthorne" and "paranoia," which of these terms is higher on
the scale of abstraction? Rank them from most concrete to most abstract:
mental illness
Note that if you stay at the same level of abstraction (i.e., "anxiety") you'll
likely be led away from higher order thinking about paranoia (except to the
degree that anxiety might overlap with paranoia in the same person's
2. Learning to recognize good, laterally useful sources and to avoid the "fatal
embrace" of a "too good source."
What do you want from the sources you seek? You do NOT want them to tell
you what to think about evidence, nor do you want them to explain to you
what an author meant by writing the a work of literature. Researchers who
seek their own theses in other writers work are like drug addicts looking for an

"authority fix" rather than developing their own, autonomous sources of

You DO want them to tell you about: terms of art and how to use them; lines of
logical analysis that work in tales you have not yet read but which could work
in your own; references to tales you dont know about and which could build
your own thesis.
3. "Gold Mining"
When you get a good source, seek your sources sources. That writer
has been working for you for years, and has assembled the sources you really
want to find. In gold mining, this is called "high-grading the ore" to concentrate
on processing stuff that already has been pre-selected as "the best." For
instance, when panning gold, they don't just process all the sand in Summit
County, Colorado, but rather they seek the lowest spots in gravel banks
located in rivers running out of known gold-bearing geological formations. The
river has been patiently and powerfully crushing and sorting rocks for millions
of years, and it always puts the gold in the same sorts of places, on the
bottom, jammed in cracks in the river's bed, because gold is heavier than
other elements. Similarly, the professional scholar's book arises out of a
similar crunching and testing and sorting of the scholar's predecessor
sources, and they're all stacked in neat little piles in the source's annotations
and bibliography or Works Cited section. Read the titles with some
discernment, check the index and find where and how they're being
referenced, and go for the ones described as "insightful," "indispensable,"
"amazing," and "essential," etc.
Also, when you get a good source, search again under your sources
name. Critics develop methodologies that work on many authors, and an
essay on Hemingway might work well as a source for terms of art or logical
strategies that also will work on Hawthorne. Also, they tend to follow the data
they've created on one topic to further conclusions expressed in more books
and articles, sometimes collected as essays in topical collections not
specifically edited by them. The Humanities Index is a great way to spot those
chapters. The main principle is that your source, like the gold miners' river,
keeps producing results all along its career, and to stop with the first one you
find might be the reason why you're not rich! The treasure goes to those who
persevere intelligently and who never stop too soon.

Do you have a research paper assigned for one or more of your courses? Are
you unsure of how to begin the research, what sources to use, or how to
write the paper and cite your sources? This guide is here to help you with
this process. Even experienced researchers struggle with beginning their
projects, so don't dispair!

First, determine what interests you. This will help you choose a topic. It is very important
that you choose a topic that is relevant to the course, and one which you would like to spend

either part of all or the semester researching. Nothing is worse than researching a topic that
bores you.

Second, learn more about your chosen topic. The more you learn about your topic will
help you to focus your research question. Your topic may be very broad, such as
"electricity." But, once you've completed a bit of research on the subject, perhaps you've
realized you would like to learn more about Nikola Tesla, a late nineteenth and early twentieth
century inventor who is renowned for his invention of the induction motor. Now that you have
taken your broad topic (electricity) and narrowed it down to a specific topic (Nikola Tesla) you
can brainstorm a research question, such as "How did Nikola Tesla's induction motor
impact the study and practice of electrical engineering during the first half of the twentieth

Third, locate sources. When gathering your sources, a mix of different types (articles,
books, audio, and video) generally enrich the quality of research papers. However, if your
Professor establishes firm guidelines regarding sources to-use and not to-use in your paper,
always follow their instructions. Two tabs at the top of this guide, labeled "Scholarly vs.
Popular" and"Finding Books and Articles" will guide you through the process of locating
relevant sources.

Fourth, review and evaluate your sources. You may locate twenty possible sources, but
once you have reviewed each, you may determine that only five are actually relevant to your

Fifth, Write. Now that you have conducted a bit of research, you can start the writing portion
of your paper. Don't worry if you start writing but then stop to research some more. Research
abounds with fits and starts. In fact, it is not unusual for researchers to continue to seek out
new sources right up until the conclusion of their paper.