Resources by Subject Getting Started with Library Research

Developing a Topic
Finding Background Information
Finding Books
Finding Articles (Journals)
Finding Media
Evaluating Sources
Citing Sources

As you read through this guide, you can look up unfamiliar terms in the library glossary. Ask a librarian if you have any questions. Remember we're here to help!

Developing a Topic

Start out by carefully reviewing your assignment sheet. Clarify any questions you have with your instructor and ensure you understand exactly what is expected.

Once you have a clear understanding of the assignment, begin to develop your topic. Some instructors may give you a specific topic; others may allow you to select your own topic. Either way, keep in mind that your topic will evolve throughout the research process. As you read background information and gather research, you will likely revise and refine your topic. For example, you may find that your initial topic is too broad given the length of the assignment. Or, if your topic is too narrow, you may have trouble finding enough sources to cite in your paper.

Brainstorming or creating a concept map may help in selecting and/or refining a topic. Try using the “Concept Map” function in Credo Reference. Or, you may want to start by reviewing class readings. The bibliography of your textbook will point you to other relevant readings. Finding background information will also help you develop a topic.

Finding Background Information

Reference sources are a great starting point for gathering background information. Reference sources include encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, supplements, and atlases. You can search for print reference sources in the library catalog MaconCat. In McGraw-Page Library, you’ll find the print reference books located behind the stairs on the first floor. You may also want to consult electronic databases for reference sources. The following list is a good place to start:

Credo Reference

Oxford Reference Online

The library’s Resources by Subject also provide links to good sources of background information by major and subject area.

Once you have articulated a topic, located background information, and refined your topic, you are ready to look for sources. Refer to your assignment sheet to see how many and what types of sources you’ll need. Professors usually want you to use books and articles from scholarly journals, though in some cases you may also need media sources and internet sources.

Finding Books

If you used reference sources to gather background information, go back to the reference article(s) and look for a bibliography. You may want to locate the items in the bibliography and consider using them as your own sources. Also consult your textbook’s bibliography.

Use the library catalog MaconCat to search for books. You can use it to locate a specific book you identified in a bibliography or you can conduct a broad search to find lots of books. Don’t hesitate to ask a librarian if you need assistance searching MaconCat or if you’re not getting the results you want from it.

If we don’t have a book you’re looking for, you can request it via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). ILL allows our library to borrow books from other libraries. Because books must travel via mail or courier, it can take 3-14 days to receive your book. Request your book from ILL as far in advance as you can.

Another strategy for finding books is to simply browse the stacks of books on the library’s second floor. The books are organized according to the Library of Congress Classification. Use the letters that correspond to your subject area.

Locating Articles (Journals)

Articles are found in journals, sometimes called periodicals (because they are printed periodically throughout the year). You can find articles by searching the library’s databases. Browse the alphabetical or subject lists of databases or use the Resources by Subject page in order to identify appropriate databases to use by discipline. Refer to How to Find a Periodical Article for more information. The following are several recommended general databases:

Academic Search Complete

OmniFile Full Text Mega


If you have an article citation, search Journals A-Z for the specific journal. Print journals in the library are in several places on the first floor. Recent issues are in the Butler Pavilion, and bound issues are toward the back of the building, near the 24/7 study area. Microfiche and microfilm are available around the corner from the Reference Desk. You may need to ask for help at the front desk when using the microfilm readers.

Interlibrary Loan (ILL) can be used for articles as well. If the library doesn't have it, there's a good chance ILL can provide you with the article you're looking for. As with books, request your article from ILL as far in advance as possible to allow for processing and delivery.

Finding Media

If you are looking for media items, such as music or films, search in MaconCat like you would for a book. You can limit the search by format (e.g., DVD, Sound Recording) in "Advanced Search." You can also search certain databases for media files. ARTstor is a great source for images; American History In Video has historical film footage.

Evaluating Sources

Evaluating sources is an essential skill. You'll need to determine if a source you find is the right type for your assignment (scholarly versus popular, for example), if the source actually ties in to your research question (relevancy), and if the source is credible. Evaluating the credibility of sources is especially important for Internet research. Use the links below to learn more.

Primary Sources versus Secondary Sources (R-MC)
Learn how to distinguish primary sources from secondary sources and figure out which type you need.

Popular Sources versus Scholarly Sources (R-MC)
Helpful tips on determining if a journal is popular or scholarly (i.e., peer-reviewed).

Evaluating Sources (R-MC)
Information on evaluating sources and determining if they meet your research needs.

Critical Evaluation of Resources on the Internet (University of Alberta Libraries)
It is especially important to evaluate any internet sources you may be using to ensure they are appropriate for academic work.

Citing Sources

Your professors will expect you to learn how to cite your sources accurately. Citation styles include MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian, among others. It is important to double-check a citation style guide even when a database gives you a citation; these database-provided citations are not always correct. You may also have to be familiar with several styles, as various subject areas use different styles. Use the links below for help or consult a style book (see the books by the reference desk and stairs to the second floor).

Assembling a List of Works Cited in Your Paper (Duke University Libraries)
Choose the type of source you want to cite to see examples in MLA, APA, Chicago and other styles.

Research and Documentation Online (Bedford St. Martin's)
Includes examples of citations of various online sources in MLA, APA, Chicago and other styles.

KnightCite (Calvin College)
Automatically formats citation information according to MLA, APA, or Chicago styles.

Still have questions?

Refer to the library glossary for explanations of library jargon and concepts. Check out our Reference Quicklinks page for other types of searches that haven’t been covered here, such as newspaper searches, biography information, etc. And don't forget that the librarians are here to help. Contact us here.


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