Research: Where to Start?
When I was in college in the late 1990s, one of the most overwhelming things for me was research. I was never taught how to properly navigate the university’s library; with so many resources, how was I to know what to use when writing a paper for a class? This was all occurring at a time when the Internet was just beginning—the current range of resources for students is enormous.
But it’s not only students who have to conduct research; anyone who is writing something where they need to confirm a bit of information will, at some point, have to do some research. Failure to perform good research is not only dishonest but can take the reader out of the story if something doesn’t ring true to them.
So how does one know where to start? How do you determine your research needs? It really depends on what you’re writing. For my part, as I’ve been working on a memoir of my life during my twenties, I’ve utilized a number of sources: my own journals and emails, photographs, letters, and zines I wrote. Even though I didn’t have to go to an archive or a library to dig up this information, I certainly spent a great amount of time doing research.
But if I were writing, say, a detective novel about a female cop, I would need to know more about the life of a woman police officer. (How does it differ from a male officer?) I’d also need to know more about police procedures. And other research topics may arise as the writing process continued.
Once you know your research needs, how does one go about finding the right information amongst the plethora of material out there? And how can you know if any of it is actually correct? Short of becoming a librarian or getting a masters degree in an academic field (both of which I did—a long-term, expensive means of overcoming my fear of research), there are a number of simple ways to do research.
Google: The go-to for many a researcher, Google is always a good place to start. The key is to know how to search effectively and directly. Google has a great page filled with tips on searching. (I really can’t emphasize enough the importance of quotation marks.) One of my favorite sections of Google is Google Books. If you want to find the full text of a book printed before 1922, it’s likely Google Books has it. If not, try the Internet Archive or Hathi Trust. And of course, Google Books also has text from lots of books post-1922 as well as journal and magazine articles.
Archives: White gloves, brittle documents, and dog-eared photographs: is this what you think of when someone mentions archives? While such a setting can seem imposing, archives are a great resource for items created during the time period about which you are writing. Diaries, letters, photographs, and objects can all be found in an archive. Not only is it interesting to be able to physically connect with items from a time period that you are interested in, but many of these items are not available anyplace else.
Libraries: As book lovers, we all appreciate libraries. But libraries aren’t just for books; most libraries have numerous databases in their holdings. With these you can browse through old newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Most databases have help sections to guide you, but if you need assistance, don’t hesitate to ask a librarian. We love to help!
Books: Most academic and non-fiction books will have a bibliography at the end. This can serve as a road map for finding other works about a subject.
Wikipedia: As I told my undergraduate students when I was a Teaching Assistant in grad school, Wikipedia is a mixed bag. It really depends on the entry. Some are written very well and include a great number of citations and additional references. Others are short and strewn with incorrect information. If nothing else, Wikipedia will give you a very basic idea of a subject. For more concrete, detailed information, you’re usually better off utilizing some of the sources mentioned in the “Further Reading” or “Bibliography” sections of each article. Pages that are noted with a star to the right of the article title are considered “featured articles” and are the most reliable. Still, confirming with other sources is recommended.
Whatever you’re researching, though, what’s important is analyzing your research needs and then knowing how to find the source that will most accurately help you with your writing project.
Kurt Morris researches for a living at an historical archive in Boston. He records music podcasts and writes for Razorcake, a non-profit punk rock magazine dedicated to supporting independent music culture. He is also working on his first book, a memoir. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/w2fc
See other articles by Kurt Morris