When you are confronted with a research project, you may feel an impulse to grab the first three books you find on your general subject. You may also think that the best way to do a "research" paper is to summarize the argument presented in each one of the three books and include at least one quote from each. That system will never result in a real research paper.
In fact, when you are assigned to write a "research paper" what you are being asked to do is something quite different. Instead of offering a summary of what other people have said about your topic, you will need to develop your own interpretation of that subject.
You will probably be using resources in several ways. You will read books and articles in order to educate yourself about the nature of the debate that has developed on this issue. You will also need to call upon these materials when you write your paper, so that you can: 1) describe the main positions taken by those involved in this debate; 2) present your own analysis of the topic and draw upon appropriate resources to support your position; and 3) respond to arguments that conflict with your position. To fulfill these responsibilities you will need to offer quotations that illustrate the different points of view.
To construct a strong research project, you will need to locate the best possible resources. By doing broad searches--looking through library catalogues, databases, and web pages--you can quickly develop a sense of the kinds of questions and arguments that come up when people write about your topic. That will provide you with an introduction to your subject and may also help you narrow down your topic. However, you will also want to select the best possible resources on your subject. In order to do that, you may want to take advantage of the advice provided by bibliographies.
If you are writing about a particular author, your "primary" sources may be texts written by the author. That list could include not only books and articles written by the individual you are studying but also such things as diary entries and letters. For example, if you are writing about Harriet Beecher Stowe, you might want to read some of her other novels, or the letters she wrote to her family, or the lectures she gave about slavery.
If you are writing about a particular period, your "primary" sources may be works written in that period. For example, if you are writing about the nineteenth century, you could cite works by Frederick Douglass or Thoreau, or Stowe. You might even find it appropriate (depending on the topic and the course) to cite non-literary texts such as sermons, speeches, children's books, articles from newspapers or popular magazines, diaries, or even song lyrics.If you are writing about a particular theme, your "primary" sources should be works that address the issue directly rather than analyzing other works on that topic. For example, if you were going to talk about the American identity, both "The Declaration of Independence" and the Autobiography of Franklin might offer useful material. Again, non-literary texts can be appropriate, depending on the paper. Your job is always to figure out which ones are MOST valuable in constructing your argument.
What is a "secondary" source?"Secondary" resources are those written about a particular subject, author, or period. They are analytical in nature and are usually written by academics specializing in the subject under discussion.
How can I find primary and secondary resources for a research project?
There are a great many ways to find sources. What follows is a brief introduction to the process of locating and selecting resources for research papers.
Try doing a search of Assumption College's D'Alzon Library catalogue to find material on your subject. You can do this at the library or by using your computer. Be sure to experiment with using different key words so that you are sure you have found all the relevant texts. When you come across a text that looks pertinent to your interest, look at the catalogue record to find the subject headings. By clicking on a subject heading you can find other resources on the same topic.
If you would like to search for books available at the Worcester Public Library and the Consortium Libraries, you can search their catalogues by using the page provided by the Assumption Library entitled "Other Libraries." Remember, you can check books out of other consortium libraries (except Clark) if you obtain a consortium card from our own library. You can also request books from other libraries by submitting an interlibrary loan request.
And because you can acquire a book from almost any library using interlibrary loan, you should also feel free to use the WorldCat database. By using WorldCat, you can find books at libraries all over the world. (The record will indicate whether our own library owns the book; it can also identify the nearest library that owns a copy of the text.)
In the reference section of the library, you will find a number of printed guides that index books and articles published in particular fields. For example, you can locate recent works of literary criticism by using such resources as the MLA International Bibliography, or the Humanities Index.
You can find these kinds of materials by consulting the sheet entitled "Indexes, Abstracts & Databases Available at D'Alzon Library" (in the free pamphlet stand near the reference desk), by looking at the shelves of reference works on literature, by searching the catalogue for reference materials on literature, or by consulting a reference librarian.
You can also use the D'Alzon library's collection of online databases to find articles and books on your subject. Remember to use the same techniques you would use in locating resources in a library catalogue. In other words, use a variety of key words, and be sure to look at the subject headings listed in the record of any item that seems particularly relevant. That will lead you to other key terms for your search.
Some of the most useful databases for conducting research in literature and other humanities are Humanities Abstracts, World Cat, and Wilson Select and Select Plus (all available through First Search), and the MLA Bibliography. If you are looking for historically based scholarship, you should also consult American History and Life (available by web and also by cd-rom at the library).
You may also want to do a web search to see what you can find online, but be sure to evaluate the academic credibility of the websites you use. You should probably begin by doing a search using the resources recommended on our Lyceum Search Page. The sites listed on that page--and particularly the "editor's picks"--are generally reliable sources for your academic research. When you engage in online research, you can usually feel pretty confident about websites posted by:
· College and university faculty members;
· Museums, libraries, and universities;
· Scholarly publications;
· Scholarly and historical organizations,
· Projects sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities or other major grant agencies;
· And any site included in our on-line course materials.
In general, you should be very wary of citing any of the following:
· Projects or essays posted by other students;
· Material posted by "buffs," i.e. individuals or groups who have a personal interest in the subject but no professional training.
· Sites constructed for the purpose of advocating a specific social, political, or religious cause.
Let me offer one final warning to help keep you from danger. Even pages posted by faculty members are often offered as simple collections of facts, questions, and comments designed to help prepare students for class discussions. If you find material that you regard as potentially useful but you are not sure of its academic credibility, just consult a librarian and/or professor for advice.
Use bibliographies to find resources that are recommended by experts. Bibliographies allow you to go directly to some of the most important books and articles on your subject.
Some bibliographies list only primary works. "Primary" resources are the books and articles written by a particular author; "secondary" resources are those written about a particular subject or particular author or his/her works. If you wanted to find everything ever written or published BY a specific writer, you would consult a bibliography of primary sources.
There are also bibliographies of secondary sources that offer a selected list of works written ABOUT a particular author or subject. (Sometimes these same resources may provide a list of primary sources. The Dictionary of Literary Biography, for example, provides an overview of the author's life, work, and reputation and then offers a complete bibliography of works published by that individual and a selected bibliography of books and articles published about that author and his/her work.)
Annotated bibliographies provide you with lists of recommended secondary sources along with a brief comment on each item summarizing its point and sometimes even evaluating its importance. If you are looking for historical information about a topic, for example, The American Historical Association's Guide to Historical Literature, edited by Mary Beth Norton, can offer you consistently reliable advice.
When possible, it's best to consult more than one bibliography. If two different bibliographies recommend the same source,it is likely to be important.
In the D'Alzon library catalogue, there are 500 works listed as bibliographies; you can skim through that listing to find materials on literature and history.
You can ask a librarian for help finding an appropriate kind of bibliography, or you can walk past the shelves of reference materials related to history and literature.
You received a handout at the library on the resources you can use for researching literature. In addition, you can find a sheet at the library recommending resources for historical research.
Consult the texts you use in the course. For example, all of the books used in Major American Writers (The Norton Anthology, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and The House of Mirth) include selected bibliographies. Consider taking advantage of their recommendations.
You will find a list of recommended online bibliographies on the Lyceum Search Page. If you locate other bibliographies on the web, be sure to determine that the bibliography has been presented by a reliable source, for example, a college or university professor, a library, an academic association, or some other educational organization. One valuable and reliable site for finding bibliographies of topics related to American Literature, for example, is Paul W. Reuben's Perspectives in American Literature site at http://lead.csustan.edu/english/reuben/home.htm
If there is a bibliography for your course, you can use that list to locate possible resources in the college library. Here is the course bibliography for Honors Major American Writers.
Use the footnotes and bibliography of the best book or article you have located as a means of tracking down other resources. (This is why scholars read footnotes. They want to find out where the author got the material he or she used to build an interpretation.) Footnotes can also lead you to the most valuable primary sources.
How do I select which resources to use? Be sure to use your common sense.You need to have a method of selecting those resources that are most appropriate for your project. In general, use annotated bibliographies or databases that include summaries in order to have the best opportunity to evaluate the relevance of a particular resource. Even more importantly, use those bibliographies that are as closely related to your topic as possible. If you are writing about the topic of death in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a bibliography of literary criticism might be a little helpful, a bibliography on Stowe would be more helpful, and probably a bibliography on "death in nineteenth century American fiction" would be most helpful. If you found a bibliography on "death in literature" you would have to select those items that pertained to nineteenth century American literature such as Uncle Tom's Cabin.When you use databases, try combinations of key words to focus your search. Rather than just using one broad term such as "women," or "education," consider finding a combination of terms that reflects your real topic. "Women" combined with "abolitionism" could provide you with a good starting list of materials on the role played by women in the fight against slavery, for example. "Slavery" combined with "reading" or "education" would be a good starting point for research on the theme of education in Uncle Tom's Cabin.As you locate articles and books, which ones sound as though they are really connected to your specific topic? You may notice that there is a particular theme that keeps coming up as the subject of articles and books on this subject. If that theme interests you, consider using it as a way to narrow your focus. It would be awfully hard to write a good paper on "Harriet Beecher Stowe" or even on Uncle Tom's Cabin. By narrowing your topic (and search) to focus on "Images of Domestic Life in Uncle Tom's Cabin," you will have a much better chance of being able to make a well-focused and well-supported argument.Which books and articles sound as though they make sense? Don't be too put off by hard words or difficult concepts--it is inevitable that you will find scholarship hard to understand. But if material sounds impossible to understand, either consult with your teacher to help you figure out a "translation" or move on to something that makes more sense.
Sent: Tuesday, October 03, 2000 2:58 PM
I just had a quick question. When I was searching for articles for my
research project I took a look in the American History and Life sight, and
found some articles that might be useful. However, the sight only gives you
the description or abstract of the article and not the full text. Where can
I get the whole article?
Dear Sarah,What a great question! Thanks for asking. Maybe I can walk you quickly through the process of "reading" the citations you get when you use AHL (American History and Life).Here's one of the first "hits" I got when I did a search in American and History Life for "sentimental." (Since _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ is recognized as a prime example of "sentimental" literature.)Type: Article
Author: Levine, Robert S.
Title: UNCLE TOM'S CABIN IN FREDERICK DOUGLASS' PAPER: AN ANALYSIS OF RECEPTION.
Citation: American Literature 1992 64(1): 71-93.
Abstract: Focuses on the reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in the pages of Frederick Douglass' Paper, an antislavery newspaper published by Douglass, between 1852 and 1854. Convinced both of the social uses of the novel and of Stowe's humanitarianism, Douglass printed articles on the novel's cultural influence as well as sentimental poetry on Uncle Tom's Cabin and worshipful profiles of Stowe. That a figure such as Douglass truly believed Stowe's novel could counteract the effects of the Compromise of 1850 should temper skepticism about Stowe's larger intentions and achievements and about her complicity in the power structure.
Documentation: 53 notes.
Subject: Stowe, Harriet Beecher (Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Frederick Douglass' Paper.
If you look at this record, you will see the name of the journal (magazine) in which the article is published, and the information about where you can find the article in the journal. The name of the journal in this case is "American Literature." The information after the name tells you that it was published in a 1992 issue of that journal and appears on pages 71-93.You know from the "Title" listing that the title of the article is "Uncle Tom's Cabin in Fr3ederick Douglass' Paper: An Analysis of Reception." You also know that the author is Robert S. Levine.
Now all you have to do is find out whether Assumption has the journal called _American Literature_. You can do that by looking at the on-line catalogue, or by looking on the periodical shelves at the library, or by looking at the free information sheet (on the rotating stand next to the reference desk) that lists the periodicals owned by the library on the subject of literature. Fortunately for all of us, the library does subscribe to _American Literature_. Since you wouldn't be looking in this case for an article that appeared this month, but instead one from some years ago, you would find it by looking upstairs where they keep the bound copies of publications. You'll find them arranged alphabetically and then by date.
If we didn't have the article you needed at our library, talk to the reference librarian about having them provide you with a copy from another library.
There are a couple of morals to this story:
1.) Always just ask me if you get confused. I'm REALLY happy to answer this kind of question.
2) Always ask librarians for help. I know I do (and it saves me a lot of time.)
3) Always print out the citations for books and/or articles you want to find, so that you can carry the list with you to the library.Here's the good news. Once you learn how to do things like find citations for articles and books using a database, and then find the articles and books themselves at the library, you are well on your way to understanding this whole process. A lot of people never figure out how to run a research project. If you can figure out some of these steps when you are an underclassman, you'll be way ahead of the game.
I'm impressed to see you using American History and Life; that's a really wonderful resource and just right for your purpose.Thanks again for asking, and good luck on your project.Yours,