Searching / Selecting Topics, Searching Library Catalogs, Deciphering Entries in Indexes and Government Publications
Searching For and Selecting Research Topics
Materials in the library are used to select a topic for a research project, or they are used to narrow or expand a topic you already have in mind.
Identifying a Topic
If you have no ideas about possible topics and your instructor or text book offer no suggestions you like, you might consult these resources in the library (M. Jones, Muskingum College Library; D. Applegate, CAL).
There are catalogs at the library that list subjects you would be likely to find in periodicals, search indexes, encyclopedias and other reference material, and card on online catalogs. These may be scanned for topic ideas.
The Library of Congress Subject Headings catalog is general in scope; a sample page from it is shown below.
Subject Section of the Library Catalog
Using the library's card catalog or computerized catalog, browse through the subject headings and subheadings for possible topics. As an example, if you are doing an informative speech and you want to do something on sports, look through the subheadings in the sports subject cards in the library catalog. If you are doing a research project for business, look at the subheadings under BUSINESS in the library catalog. Subjects are indicated as words in upper case letters, such as the examples below; the first example is a subject card from a traditional card catalog and the second example shows subject listings on a screen from a computerized catalog.
Browse Sections of the Stacks
Using the Library of Congress classification system as a guideline, locate the stacks in the library that contain books on the general subject. For example, if you are doing a research assignment for psychology, browse the psychology book titles in the BF sections of the library stacks; the book titles might give you ideas for research topics. If you are doing a research assignment for a architecture course, browse the shelves in section NA of the library stacks. The Library of Congress classification system is:
Look at Journal Indexes
Using journal indexes for a particular subject, look at the subject headings in for ideas about possible topics. For instance, if you are doing a research project for a fine arts class, skim through the subject headings of Art Index for topic ideas. For a women's studies research project, you might scan the subject headings in Women's Studies Abstracts. If you need a current events topic, try newspaper indexes like the New York Times Index.
Browse through current Periodicals
Current issues of periodicals received by the library are usually shelved in or near the library's reference room. Look through the magazine titles for topic ideas, then find a magazine that looks promising and look through the table of contents.
Refining a Topic
If you have a general idea of what you would like to research, you can refine your topic by looking in several places for information about it (M. Jones, Muskingum College Library; D. Applegate, CAL). The suggested sources are illustrated graphically in the figure below; to the image one might add online reference sources like Internet search engines and online catalogs from other libraries. As you find more information about your topic, record key words that can be used when you do your in-depth search for reference material.
General encyclopedias provide overviews of a wide range of topics. Encyclopedia entries may be used to narrow or expand your research topic. As you read an encyclopedia entry, write down key words and terms associated with the topic; these terms may be used to search for references in library catalogs, indexes, and Internet search engines.
Specialized Subject Encyclopedias
Most libraries have encyclopedias devoted to very specific topics or disciplines. If you are doing a research project in one of these areas, use the specialized encyclopedia in the same way as the general encyclopedias. The information contained in them may be used to refine your topic and/or develop key term lists to guide your research. Specialized subject encyclopedias include Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, International Encyclopedia of Education, Encyclopedia of Religion, and McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.
Find textbooks on the subject you are considering and look for your topic in the table of contents and index. Information provided in the text may give you ideas for refining your topic and key terms to search. In addition, textbook bibliographies may provide specific titles and authors of references related to your topic.
Brainstorming involves quickly identifying possible topics for a research project. The goal is simply to generate a list of potential topics; when brainstorming you should avoid thoroughly evaluating the pros and cons of each topic. Besides helping you identify a research topic, brainstorming can help you develop a list of key words that may be searched in indexes, library catalogs, and online resources.
Shown below is a worksheet that you might use while brainstorming topic ideas and/or refining research topics.
Tips for Searching Library Catalogs
Today most library catalogs are computerized and accessed through terminals in the library. Some online catalogs are even available to users off campus through the Internet. Traditional card catalogs may be found at other libraries instead of or in addition to online catalogs.
Collins, Catlett, and Collins (1994, p. 76-77) offer the following suggestions for search a library's online and/or card catalogs.
Determine if the topic is in the subject section of the library catalog.
If it is, search for the appropriate items, record the bibliographic information for the items, and record the call numbers of the items.
If it is not, look for the topic in the Library of Congress Subject Headings index and find the appropriate subject heading. If the topic is not listed in this index, ask a reference librarian for assistance.
Determine the form of the item and locate the item.
If the item is a circulating book, check out the item at the circulation desk.
If the item is a microform, request it at the microforms desk.
If the item is an audio-visual, check out the item at the media resources center.
If the item is a government document, seek the assistance of the reference librarian or the documents librarian.
If the item is a serial, see the serials catalog to determine the location of the item.
If you cannot determine the form of the item, request assistance from the reference librarian.
Look for the next item by repeating steps 1 and 2.
Deciphering Entries in Indexes and Government Publications
Indexes are reference sources that list publications according to subject (M. Jones, Muskingum College Library; D. Applegate, CAL). They are available in book form and/or online. Typically, indexes are multivolume sets with each volume corresponding to a year or range of years. All articles related to certain subjects that were published in that year or range of years are listed in the index.
Indexes vary according to the publications referenced in them. The beginning pages of an index will list all the publications referenced as well as their abbreviations used in the index entries.
Indexes exist for periodicals, newspapers, government documents, and dissertations and theses.
Periodical indexes list articles published in scholarly journals, general-audience magazines, and, in some cases, newspapers. Entries are listed alphabetically by subject and/or author. Periodical indexes may be generalized, such as the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which is a popular index for magazines and some academic journals, and ProQuest, which is an online index for magazines, academic journals, and newspapers. Other periodical indexes are content-specific; examples include Applied Science and Technology Index, Business Periodical Index, Humanities Index, and Social Sciences Index. Some indexes provide not only the bibliographic information about each item but also the abstract; examples are America: History and Life, Biological Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts, Psychological Abstracts, and Women's Studies Abstracts. Illustrated below is an example of how a typical periodical index is arranged.
As indicated above, some periodical indexes list sources from a select number of newspapers. There are also indexes devoted to newspapers only, such as the New York Times Index. A sample page from that index is shown here to illustrate the typical format of newspaper index entries.
Reports, proceedings, pamphlets, and other publications issued by the federal government are indexed in special catalogs. A sample entry from the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications is deciphered below.
Dissertations and Theses
All dissertations and theses completed at U.S. college and universities in a given year are listed in publications of University Microforms (Ann Arbor, Michigan). Each entry includes bibliographic information about the work as well as the abstract. Individual colleges and universities often index their own dissertations and theses as well.