We have a section of our Smart Student Library Guide that is devoted to choosing a topic. There are some examples there to get you started on thinking about how to narrow your topic.
The guide is really helpful, but I also want to throw in my two cents here.
Does this sound familiar? You are told that your paper has to be on a certain topic (usually the topic of your course). You could write a book about it, it’s so big. But instead of trying to narrow down your topic, you go look for an article. If you can find an article, you could build your paper around that, and – voila! – your topic will magically be narrowed in the process.
I have written too many papers to know this will happen. Your professors have written and read too many papers to know this will happen. You really have to narrow down your topic a bit in advance, or your research time is going to be wasted, and you’re going to have a hard time writing anything.
Figure out your topic first. Sure, you might get started and then realize that, no, this topic bores you to tears and you’d rather switch to this other topic you’ve discovered along the way. That’s okay. (As long as your professor doesn’t mind you switching topics.) Just don’t try to research a really general topic and hope to find one perfect article and build a paper around it. That’s really hard. Don’t make things harder on yourself.
Be bold. Stake a claim. Find evidence to support it. You might find that taking a stance and arguing a point is actually kind of fun.
Research steps? Really?!?! Don’t you just sorta think about your topic? Or just go Google it or something?
Well, that’s one way of doing research. That’s usually not the approach that is the fastest, or gets you the best results, but, hey, we’re not going to stand in your way of doing it that way!
If you want to try a more efficient way, we’ve got some concrete steps you can follow. These might be the sort of steps that are “common sense”: if you’ve done a few research assignments before, you know how this works. But it’s like anything else you want to do efficiently: having a checklist makes it better.*
Until you’ve done something so frequently that it has become second nature to you, it’s a good idea to follow a checklist. Save your brain for the heavy lifting, like reading, analyzing, and writing. Let us help you with the Research Basics.
*(For more on checklists, check out Atul Gawande’s The checklist manifesto. Believe it or not, it’s really fun to read!)
If you’ve ever assembled a piece of furniture, you have probably learned that here are two ways of doing it:
- You ignore the directions and do it yourself, just using your ‘common sense’. This approach usually means that you are going to have to take things apart and put them back together several times, until you figure out the best sequence.
- You read the directions and get everything done in the best order, with the right pieces, on the first attempt.
Doing research is like building furniture. Sure, some of it is common sense. Here at the library, we’re interested not only in getting things done, but in being efficient, too. If you want a quick overview of the best approach to doing research, with the steps all neatly explained for you, check out our Smart Student Library Research Guide.
This guide walks you through some basic steps. The guide is particularly designed for students who are new to library research here at Salve Regina University, but it’s a helpful overview for all students.
One of my favorite features? There’s an “assignment calculator” on the first page. You enter what day you’ll start working on your assignment, and what day it is due, and the guide will give you an estimate of when you should meet certain goals on your way to finishing your assignment.
As always, if you need any help, be sure to contact us.
We did a patron satisfaction survey last spring, and one of the questions was: “If you never (or occasionally) seek help from library staff, why not?”
Most of the answers were like this: “I haven’t needed help.”
But my favorite answer was this:
“To stubborn to ask for help and want to figure it out on my own.”
This is the era of “do-it-yourself”. We DIYers check out our own groceries. We try on our own shoes. (When was the last time you were in a shoe store where they had to bring out the shoes for you? I actually find that annoying now.)
What I’ve been trying to highlight in this series of blog posts are a few tips and hints so you can do-it-yourself.
But here’s the thing. Librarians get master’s degrees in library and information science. We are the ninjas of information and the internet. (You didn’t notice? That’s because we are ninjas.)
We want you to do it yourself. But if you are pressed for time – and we know you are – we can show you more efficient ways of getting the information you need.
We are all about the do-it-yourself ethos at the library. We even have a self-checkout machine on the second floor, if you want to do that yourself, too.
But you should never hesitate to get some advice from us on the best ways to get the resources you need.
I like to think of it as ‘getting some advice’, rather then ‘asking for help’. Even DIYers like getting advice. That’s why we are here.
I’m going to explain about a bit about how “e-reserves” work.
I think I need to back up a little and explain the concept of “reserves” first.
Sometimes professors want to assign a few pages from a text, or they want a class to watch a particular movie. So, instead of asking students to buy the book or dvd, the professors ask the library to put our copy of the book or dvd “on reserve”. That means the item can be checked out for a limited time only, and it usually can’t leave the building. (There are some exceptions to this.)
The point is so that all students have a fair shot at borrowing and using the item (for a limited time), and no one person can check it out and hold on to it for weeks on end, so no one else can borrow it.
E-reserves are a little easier to use. If the library owns an item, we can put an electronic copy on reserve so that students can access it online. (There are copyright restrictions, of course. We can’t just digitize everything we own.)
The cool think about e-reserves is that multiple students can access the electronic copy at one time, so you don’t have to wait for your classmate to finish with the item before you can look at it.
If you’re new to reserves and e-reserves, there is a brief guide here: http://library.salve.edu/newreserve.html.
While university librarians typically focus on the sort of information used in research, there are all sorts of information that we have to manage everyday.
A really useful article (filled with specific examples and directions) on dealing with personal information overload is Sara Houghton-Jan’s “Being wired or being tired: 10 ways to cope with information overload”, Ariadne, Issue 56, July 2008.
Maybe you don’t think you have an ‘information overload’ problem, but the article is still worth reading. Her advice is helpful. Especially her advice to just shut things off sometimes!
When you sit down to do work, I bet you put your computer 15 feet away, your pen and paper on the other side of the room, and all your research information under your bed.
Let’s be serious. You get everything you need and gather it together so you don’t have to go running around to find stuff while you are working.
We get that. So we want library resources to be right at your fingertips, wherever you are: